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Assad to meet with United Nations panel

To be questioned on Hariri slaying

UNITED NATIONS -- Syrian President Bashar Assad and his top deputy have agreed to meet for the first time with the commission investigating last year's assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, the team's chief said in a report released yesterday.

The meetings, expected later this month, would mark a significant reversal for Assad and Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, who have steadfastly refused to heed interview requests from the commission. Investigators have repeatedly accused Damascus of failing to cooperate in the investigation into the slaying of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

UN investigators had earlier implicated top Syrian and Lebanese officials in the explosion that killed Hariri and 22 others on Feb. 14, 2005. Among those linked to the killing was Brigadier General Assaf Shawkat, Syria's military intelligence chief and Assad's brother-in-law.

Serge Brammertz, who took over the investigation in January, wrote in the report to the UN Security Council that his commission had reached a deal for extensive Syrian cooperation. He said Syria had signaled that it might arrest those his team suspects of involvement.

''This understanding will be tested in the upcoming months," Brammertz wrote.

Syria has denied involvement in Hariri's death. The assassination led to demonstrations against Syria's decades-long dominance of Lebanese affairs and magnified international pressure on Damascus to withdraw its troops, which it eventually did.

In his report, Brammertz said investigators still had no unifying theory about how the bombing was executed, but that the team knew more now about how conspirators prepared the plot.

Much of his work in recent weeks was spent analyzing evidence collected by his predecessor, Detlev Mehlis. Noting the complex nature of the plot to kill Hariri and the discipline and skill required of those who carried it out, the report speculated that at least some of those involved had been involved in terrorist acts before.

''The individuals who perpetrated this crime appear to be very 'professional' in their approach," the report said.

According to the report, 10 people are still in custody in connection with Hariri's slaying.

Brammertz's report was intentionally short on specifics, a distinctive shift in tone from Mehlis's two reports, which exhaustively detailed the evidence suggesting Syrian and Lebanese involvement in Hariri's killing.

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