updated 11/25/2005 7:07:36 PM ET 2005-11-26T00:07:36

Syria has agreed to allow its officials to be questioned at U.N. offices in Vienna by investigators probing the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a top diplomat said Friday.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told a news conference that the breakthrough in negotiations with the United Nations came after Syria received “guarantees concerning the rights of the individuals” to be questioned and “reassurances” that its sovereignty would be respected.

A U.N. commission mandated by the Security Council is investigating the death of Hariri, who was killed with 20 other people in a massive truck bombing in Beirut on Feb. 14. The commission, headed by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, issued an interim report last month that implicated Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services in the assassination.

Moallem said Syria would soon contact the commission to work out dates for the questioning.

“The (Syrian) leadership has decided to inform Mehlis that it accepts his suggestion, as a compromise, that the venue to listen to the five Syrian officials be the U.N. headquarters in Vienna,” Moallem said.

A spokeswoman for Mehlis confirmed the questioning would take place in Vienna but declined to comment on any assurances the Syrians had received.

U.N., U.S. officials welcome shift
The agreement was welcomed by Mehlis, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and the U.S. ambassador to the world body, John Bolton, who earlier this week accused Syria of “delaying and obstructing” the investigation.

Bolton said Syria’s move was a direct result of the “unambiguous, unanimous decision of the Security Council,” which had given Mehlis the power to question suspects at a location and under conditions of his choice.

The U.N. Security Council had told Syria that it has to cooperate fully with the commission and warned it of “further action” — diplomatic code for sanctions — if it fails to do so. The council’s mandate for the commission expires Dec. 15.

Moallem refused to identify the Syrian officials sought for questioning, citing the “secrecy of the investigation.” He said they would be accompanied to Vienna by only their lawyers.

Reports have said Mehlis wanted to interview six officials, including the chief of Syria’s military intelligence, Brig. Gen. Assef Shawkat, who is the brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

But Moallem said only five were needed for questioning. “As far as I know the number of those wanted are five,” he said. “I don’t know where you got the sixth name.”

Mehlis has not publicly said whom the commission wants to interview.

Syria had rejected Mehlis’ request to interview the officials in Beirut, claiming they would not be safe there. It is believed Syria was concerned that Mehlis could recommend the arrest of the officials after they were questioned in Lebanon. Lebanon has arrested several other suspects at Mehlis’ request.

Hariri’s assassination provoked mass demonstrations in Lebanon calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops, who had been stationed in the country since the second year of the 1975-90 civil war. It also heightened international pressure for a Syrian withdrawal.

Syria removed its troops in April. In May-June elections, Lebanon elected its first parliament in many years that did not have a pro-Syrian majority.

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