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Lebanon president quizzed in Hariri probe

U.N. investigators on Friday interviewed Lebanese President Emile Lahoud about the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the president's office said.
/ Source: The Associated Press

U.N. investigators on Friday interviewed Lebanese President Emile Lahoud about the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the president's office said.

It was the first time the U.N. commission had taken evidence from a head of state since it began its work in June. A request to interview President Bashar Assad of Syria was refused, according to the commission's interim report last month.

Two investigators came to the Baabda presidential palace on Friday evening to see Lahoud, his office said in a press release.

Chief U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis has said Lahoud is not a suspect in the Feb. 14 truck bombing that killed Hariri and 20 others on a Beirut street. But the interim report said a suspect called the president's phone minutes before the blast.

"The president informed (the investigators) of the accurate information pertaining to what has been reported about phone calls to the presidential palace before and after the crime, in addition to rumors relating to the crime that were carried by the media," said the president's office.

Office denied Lahoud received call
The president's office has denied Lahoud received a call from a suspect minutes before the explosion.

Officials close to the U.N. investigation said the investigators asked the president about communications and the chain of command in his office.

The meeting lasted more than an hour, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case. The U.N. commission works in secrecy and the investigators do not announce their plans.

Four Lebanese generals, all pro-Syrian, are under arrest and charged with Hariri's murder after the U.N. commission named them as suspects. One of the generals is the commander of the presidential guard and two others are close to Lahoud.

Earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council upgraded the powers of the commission. It gave Mehlis, a German prosecutor, the right to interview anybody and to select the venue and conditions.

The council also resolved that Syria must cooperate fully with the commission and warned it of further action if it failed to do so.

Assassination a turning point
The killing of Hariri, who was regarded as a quiet opponent of Syrian influence in Lebanon, was a turning point in modern Lebanese history. It provoked mass demonstrations against Syria and magnified the international pressure on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.

In April, fewer than three months after the murder, Syria withdrew its forces, ending a 29-year military domination of its western neighbor.

Lahoud, a political enemy of Hariri, has supported the U.N. investigation. He has repeatedly denied any role in the murder and called for the culprits to be punished.

However, his being interviewed by the commission is likely to strengthen calls from politicians and newspapers opposed to Syria for Lahoud to resign. The demand for his resignation has intensified since Syrian forces withdrew and the arrest of the four generals in August.

Lahoud has refused to step down, and enjoys the support of the influential Maronite Church, of which he is a member. He is also backed by a prominent Christian leader as well as the Amal and Hezbollah groups, which represent the Shiite Muslims, the country's largest community.