updated 12/12/2006 8:40:48 PM ET 2006-12-13T01:40:48

The U.N. probe into the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister has reached “a critical stage” and determined that a single blast from a Mitsubishi van packed with high explosives was likely detonated by a man who spent his last months in Lebanon, the chief investigator reported Tuesday.

Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz indicated in his fourth report to the U.N. Security Council that the International Independent Investigation Commission has information on suspects and witnesses which U.N. investigators and Lebanon’s prosecutor general agree should not be disclosed to avoid prejudicing a trial.

The report provided some new evidence and some tantalizing clues about the ongoing investigation into the killing of Rafik Hariri and 22 others, which Brammertz said is taking place in a “volatile” and “highly unpredictable” political and security environment in Lebanon that could contribute to the reticence of witnesses.

He said the commission is evaluating and organizing its work in light of U.N. authorization of a special tribunal to prosecute Hariri’s alleged killers, which is still awaiting final approval from the Lebanese government.

Government under pressure
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora’s anti-Syrian government is under pressure from pro-Syria Hezbollah, which is staging demonstrations to back its demand for a unity government that could block the tribunal.

A report last year by Brammertz’ predecessor implicated Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services in Hariri’s assassination. Syria denied any involvement but was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, ending a 29-year presence. Four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals have been under arrest for 15 months accused of involvement in Hariri’s murder.

Brammertz said Damascus’ cooperation with his investigators “remains timely and efficient” though he criticized 10 other countries — which he did not name — for failing to respond to 22 requests from the commission.

“It is of critical importance,” he said, “that the commission has access to those political actors with whom Hariri had direct contact in the last months of his life, and to those individuals involved in the relevant political dynamics in Lebanon, the broader region and internationally.”

Brammertz said investigators are looking into the discovery in June “of certain personal effects of a victim of the explosion” at the bombing scene in Beirut. He gave no details of the items.

New ballistic information
The commission is also continuing to investigate “matters arising from a victim at the crime scene who had been discovered in a situation protected from the blast but who was killed by falling masonry,” Brammertz said. The report did not identify the victim.

The commission is also continuing its investigation of the purchase of the van and its preparation with explosives, now determined to include TNT, RDX, PETN, DNT and an indication of TNP or piric acid, he said.

“The commission has received new information specifying details of the preparation of the van and establishment of the route of the van as it was brought to the St. Georges hotel area prior to the attack,” the report said.

In the last three months, Brammertz said, the commission conducted seven interviews in connection with the alleged bombing team and their use of six telephones to communicate on Feb. 14, 2005 — the day of the assassination — which provided new leads that are being pursued.

“The location of the telephones when used, and the purposes for which some of the linking numbers were used have revealed the high degree of security-aware behavior exhibited by individuals under investigation,” Brammertz said.

Forensics work goes on
“Some persons used multiple mobile cellular telephones during a short period of time or registered telephones using aliases,” he said. “While such compartmentalization of telephone usage makes analysis more complex, it helps to provide an understanding of the modus operandi of the perpetrators.”

Brammertz said the investigation is still focusing on forensic analysis of the crime scene, potential perpetrators, and linkages with other killings.

Brammertz said the commission is also focusing on the motives for killing Hariri, links between Hariri’s assassination and 14 other murders and attempted murders in Lebanon, and an investigation of Ahmed Abu Adass, who appeared on a video tape claiming responsibility.

“The commission has reached a critical stage in its investigations, and with this in mind, the commission and the prosecutor general of Lebanon believe that placing information concerning witnesses and suspects in the public domain would be contrary to the principles of fairness and justice,” Brammertz said.

He said the commission’s work on the 14 cases “continues to elicit significant links between each case, and to indicate links to the Rafik Hariri case.”

The U.N. team is also helping Lebanese authorities investigate the Nov. 21 assassination of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, and 240 “exhibits” have been sent to a laboratory for forensic research and analysis, Brammertz said.

Pursuing different motives
As for the Hariri killing, he said, investigators are working on numerous motives including that Hariri was assassinated by an extremist group “because of his links to other states in the region and in the West,” because of his success in May 2005 elections, because of his likely expose of a bank fraud, and as “a convenient cover” to propel others into the front line of accusations.

The commission said the most likely scenario was that a bomber triggered the device that killed Hariri from inside or immediately in front of the Mitsubishi van.

A report from forensic experts showed that the alleged bomber “did not spend his youth in Lebanon, but was situated there in the last two to three months before his death,” Brammertz said.

It also revealed the type of area in which the individual lived during the last 10 years or so “though no specific region can as yet be derived from the analysis,” Brammertz said.

“The commission has also received other information concerning geographic origin which it is unable to disclose at this time,” the report said.

During the next three months, a wider analysis of hair, geochemical and other samples from relevant countries and other areas will be undertaken that may point toward the geographic origin of the man likely to have detonated the device, the report said.

At the same time, forensic analysis of the 33 human parts believed to be the remains of the bomber will continue to determine his ethnicity, Brammertz said.

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