updated 4/25/2006 5:56:24 PM ET 2006-04-25T21:56:24

A U.N. investigator interviewed Syria’s leader Tuesday about the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, a long-sought encounter that President Bashar Assad had twice declined.

The U.N. investigative commission has linked Syrian and Lebanese intelligence agents to the killing of former prime minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005, a charge that Assad’s government has denied.

Chief investigator Serge Brammertz was expected to ask Assad about accusations he threatened Hariri when the two men met in August 2004. According to testimony to the commission, Assad said he wanted the term of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian president extended — a move Hariri was known to oppose — and he threatened to crush anyone who got in the way.

In media interviews, Assad has denied making threats and pointed out Hariri later voted for the extension of President Emile Lahoud’s term. Hariri left office in October 2004.

“Neither me nor anybody else in Syria threatened him,” Assad said in a recent television interview.

No details of the Tuesday meeting were released, but a spokesman for the U.N. commission and the official Syrian Arab News Agency said Brammertz met with Assad and Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa separately.

The interview was a milestone in the commission’s 10-month-old investigation into the truck bombing that killed Hariri and 20 others in Beirut, Lebanon. Assad refused two requests for an interview last year and the U.N. Security Council twice accused Syria of failing to cooperate with the commission.

The United States warned Syria that the Security Council would take action unless it cooperated fully with the commission.

Damascus denies role
Syria has repeatedly denied any role in the murder, which provoked an international outcry as well as mass street protests by Lebanese that ultimately forced Assad to withdraw the Syrian army from Lebanon in April 2005, ending nearly three decades of military dominance.

Al-Sharaa was Syria’s foreign minister at the time of the assassination. An interim report in October accused him of lying to the commission in a letter about Hariri’s meeting with Assad.

The Syrian government announced that the interviews had taken place only after Brammertz returned to his base in Beirut in a convoy of armored vehicles.

Many Lebanese blame Syria for Hariri’s assassination and for a series of mysterious bombings over the past 14 months that have targeted Lebanese politicians and journalists opposed to Syrian influence in the country. Syria denies involvement in the attacks.

Four top Lebanese generals — key figures during Syria’s domination of Lebanon — have been arrested in Lebanon and charged with playing a role in Hariri’s killing. Syrian officials have been implicated but no one has been charged.

Assad has told reporters that if any Syrian officials are convicted of involvement in the assassination, they will be punished as “traitors.”

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