updated 12/28/2005 10:04:01 PM ET 2005-12-29T03:04:01

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has nominated a Belgian prosecutor to lead the next stage of a probe into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, U.N. officials and diplomats said Wednesday.

Serge Brammertz, a deputy prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Netherlands, would replace Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor who concluded that high-ranking Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officials played a role in Hariri’s Feb. 14 slaying in a car bombing that also killed 20 other people.

U.N. diplomats said Brammertz had accepted Annan’s offer to take up the job and that the world body was waiting for the chief ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, to write a letter formally releasing him. They spoke on condition of anonymity because his appointment had not been made public.

U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe said Annan had completed the selection process and would announce his choice on Jan. 11.

Bolton supports appointment
There was some fear that the United States, which opposes the ICC, might object to Brammertz’s appointment, but U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said Wednesday that was not the case.

“We believe strongly that a clear signal of determination and continuity must be sent to Syria’s leaders,” Bolton said in a statement.

ICC prosecution spokesman Christian Palme confirmed that Brammertz had been asked to take the post but said he wanted time over the holidays to decide whether to accept. The job would bring him enormous scrutiny and could put his life in danger.

Indeed, a pro-Syrian group that claimed it killed a Lebanese editor has threatened to kill the next head of the U.N. commission investigating Hariri's assassination, the editor’s newspaper reported Wednesday.

Syria pledges to cooperate
Syria, meanwhile, promised Wednesday to fully cooperate with the new U.N. investigator, but repeated its demands for an agreement with the U.N. commission defining the terms of its cooperation.

An-Nahar newspaper said it had received a statement signed by “The Strugglers for the Unity and Freedom in al-Sham,” the group that claimed responsibility for the death of Gibran Tueni with a car bomb on Dec. 12. Al-Sham is the Arabic term for the historical region that encompassed Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The statement said Mehlis, who stepped down this month as chairman of the U.N. commission, was lucky to escape death. Mehlis had concluded that Syria was involved in the killing of Hariri, who was slain by a truck bomb in Beirut in February. Syria denies the charge.

“Mehlis was able to slip out of our hands a moment before it was too late when he chose to resign because he understood the message and realized that if he did not do that, his end would be wretched like the end of all traitors who betray Arabs and Islam,” the statement said.

An-Nahar published the full text of the statement, but did not say why it believed it to be authentic or how it had been received. When The Associated Press called the paper’s offices, staff said that the person who could answer such questions was not immediately available.

‘Filthy infidel’
The statement described Mehlis, a German prosecutor, as a “filthy infidel” who had politicized the investigation to implicate Syria. It warned Mehlis’s successor, who has not been appointed, not to come to the same conclusions.

The statement ended with an ominous Arabic saying: “He who has given advance warning is excused.”

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said Syria will fully cooperate with the U.N. commission but wants to sign an agreement outlining “the rights and obligations of each side.”

Mehlis had rejected a previous Syrian demand to sign a cooperation protocol with the U.N. commission similar to the one signed with Lebanese authorities.

Syria will not criticize the new U.N. investigator unless he starts criticizing it, al-Sharaa said, adding, “Syria will cooperate with him to the utmost extent.”

Under heavy guard
The alleged authors of the statement had not been heard of until they claimed responsibility for Tueni’s killing. Tueni, who was also a member of parliament, was a leader of the campaign to remove Syria’s influence from Lebanon.

Mehlis has said he received threats during his work in Lebanon. When he moved around the country, he was always heavily guarded.

He has offered to guide the U.N. commission’s work until the end of January or when a replacement is found.

The Feb. 14 assassination of Hariri was a turning point in modern Lebanese history. As Hariri was seen as a quiet opponent of Syrian influence, his killing provoked mass demonstrations against Syria. The protests, combined with international pressure, forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, ending a 29-year military presence in the country.

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