Report: Syria planned Hariri murder

BEIRUT, Lebanon

Officials at the highest levels in Syria and Lebanon organized the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, according to the Kuwaiti newspaper a-Siasa.

The report revealed that two high-ranking Syrian generals – including Syrian president Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law, Brig. Gen. Asef Shawkat, whom he appointed Friday to head military intelligence – and a Lebanese general.

The newspaper did not reveal the sources of the report.

The Lebanese and Syrian governments have denied any role in the death of Hariri, who was killed by a massive bomb as he was driven in his motorcade through central Beirut. The blast killed 16 other people and wounded more than 100.

The murder of Hariri, a politician who was seen as a key figure in applying international pressures to effect Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, was evidently intended as a bloody warning to the Lebanese to think twice before demanding that Syrian troops pull out, the report commented.

Over the weekend Lebanese opposition stepped up its campaign against the country’s pro-Syrian government Friday, calling for a “peaceful intifada” to force the resignation of Prime Minister Omar Karami and the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon.

Since Hariri’s murder, the anti-Syrian Lebanese opposition has blamed the government and its Syrian backers for the assassination. Friday the opposition issued a statement calling on people to stage a peaceful “independence uprising” against the government.

In its statement, the opposition said the government should resign and a transitional Cabinet should be formed “to protect the people, and to ensure an immediate and full withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon as a prelude for free and fair elections.” Parliamentary elections are due to be held in April and May.

The statement - which was read out by Samir Franjieh, a second cousin of the interior minister - also urged Lebanese to continue to gather daily at Hariri’s grave in Martyrs’ Square in Beirut, to light candles and say prayers.

Shortly after the rebellious declaration, about 1,000 opposition supporters staged an anti-Syria rally in front of parliament, a few blocks from Hariri’s grave. They carried placards reading “Syrians out now” and chanted anti-Syrian slogans. Security forces watched but did not interfere, and the protesters dispersed peacefully.

Expressing their mourning and deference to Hariri, thousands of people signed a 30 meter (90 ft.) banner with the word “Resign,” written in French and Arabic, addressed to the government. The banner was unfurled at Hariri’s grave, situated outside of a Beirut mosque that he had built.

Responding to the protests which have steadily grown in fervor over the past few days, Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh warned the government would not tolerate any public disturbances. “The state will not stand idly by,” he warned.

Meanwhile, in the first cabinet fallout from Monday’s assassination, Tourism Minister Farid Khazen resigned Friday, saying the government was not capable of running the country at this crucial stage.

The departure of a minister close to pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud caused surprise, but was not expected to cause the government to collapse. Prime Minister Karami quickly appointed a new tourism minister, Wadih Khazen, who is not related to his predecessor.

“Any minister who resigns will be promptly replaced,” Karami said, signaling the government’s determination to stay in office.

Hariri’s family, as well as France and the United States, have called for an international enquiry into his killing. Karami’s government has rejected these calls, but it has commissioned foreign experts, such as Swiss forensic scientists, to assist its investigation.

The assassination has also increased pressure on Syria to withdraw its 15,000 soldiers from Lebanon. On Thursday US President George W. Bush said he would encourage his European allies to put pressure on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon.

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