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U.N. probe links Syria to Hariri killing

Witnesses 'tried to mislead the investigation'

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Lebanon
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Rafik Hariri
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UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- U.N. investigators have found "converging evidence" of Lebanese and Syrian involvement in the February killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a report released Thursday has concluded.

The report, by German prosecutor Detleve Mehlis, stated that "many leads point directly towards Syrian security officials as being involved with the assassination," and it calls on Damascus "to clarify a considerable part of the unresolved questions."

Syrian officials have denied any involvement in the February 14 bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others. But given Syrian domination of its allied government in Lebanon, "it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge," Mehlis concluded in a report delivered to Secretary-General Kofi Annan earlier Thursday.

Mehlis' report found that Syrian authorities cooperated "to a limited degree" with the investigation, but several witnesses "tried to mislead the investigation by giving false or inaccurate statements."

There was no immediate reaction from Syrian officials to the findings.

The report said the assassination came at a time of "extreme political polarization and tension."

"Accusations and counter accusations targeting mainly Mr. Hariri over the period preceding his assassination corroborate the commission's conclusion that the likely motive of the assassination was political," it said.

"However, since the crime was not the work of individuals but rather of a sophisticated group, it very much seems that fraud, corruption, and money laundering could also have been motives for individuals to participate in the operation."

Hariri served as Lebanon's prime minister five times, and political sources close to the former leader said he was planning to stage a political comeback by publicly supporting the growing opposition to Syria's role in Lebanon.

Syrian troops entered Lebanon in 1976, in the early days of that country's 15-year civil war.

They remained for nearly 30 years, until pressure from Lebanese protests and the international community following Hariri's killing forced Damascus to pull its troops out in April.

In an October 12 interview with CNN, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denied reports -- recounted in Thursday's report -- that he had threatened Hariri in 2004.

Al-Assad had demanded the former premier support an extension of the term of Lebanon's president, Emile Lahoud, a staunch Syrian ally.

He told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that any Syrian involved in the plot "would be considered as a traitor and most severely punished."

"It is treason," he said.

The investigation already has led to the arrests and indictments of four pro-Syrian Lebanese security chiefs allegedly linked to the assassination. All four were interviewed by U.N. investigators during the probe, with their lawyers present, and denied any involvement, the report states.(Full story)

And Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan was reported to have committed suicide the same day of al-Assad's denial -- just hours after calling a Lebanese radio station to challenge allegations that he was involved in Hariri's killing. He was one of several senior officials U.N. investigators questioned in August. (Full story)

Investigation 'not complete'

The attack took several months to prepare and required detailed monitoring of Hariri's movements, and "could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials," the report found.

In addition, the report stated, it could not have been carried out "without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security services."

The U.N. probe said the bomb used to kill Hariri was detonated above ground and used at least 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of military explosives. But investigators had not yet determined how the bomb was detonated.

The convoy Hariri traveled in used jamming devices to prevent bombs from being detonated by remote control, so a suicide bomber might have set off the explosion. But investigators said further investigation was needed to determine how the bomb was set off.

The report recommended that Lebanese authorities pick up the investigation from this point, with assistance from the international community.

During the four-month investigation, the report said, investigators interviewed more than 400 people and reviewed 60 000 documents.

"Yet, the investigation is not complete," the report said.

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