Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has rejected a U.N. request to be interviewed as part of an inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri last year, diplomatic sources said on Saturday.
Syria told the U.N. commission that the request to meet Assad violates the country’s sovereignty, they said.
The decision is likely to intensify international pressure on Damascus, given a U.N. Security Council resolution in October threatening to take unspecified action if Syria failed to fully cooperate with the inquiry.
A spokeswoman for the U.N. investigation confirmed Syria had replied to a request to meet Assad and Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara, among other officials, but refused to elaborate.
Asked if Syria had rejected the request to meet Assad, one diplomatic source said: “Yes, that’s true.”
The source added: “The main point is that Syria ... said the request violates the principles of sovereignty.”
Commission to meet foreign minister
The diplomats, who asked not to be named, said Damascus has responded positively to “one part of the request” but declined to give further details. Diplomats had said earlier this month that Syria had agreed to allow the commission to meet Shara.
Assad, in an interview with Egyptian weekly newspaper El Osboa, hinted that he would be immune from questioning by U.N. investigators.
“There was a previous request, when the committee proposed to come to Syria at the end of last summer to listen to Syrian witnesses, as they call them. At that time, they requested to meet with President Bashar, and the president of the republic has international immunity,” Assad said in the interview.
The inquiry has implicated senior Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies in the Feb. 14 killing of Hariri and 22 others in Beirut.
Syria has denied any role, but the murder sparked mass protests in Beirut, forcing Damascus to bow to world pressure and end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon in April.
The United States said on Wednesday the agreement to interview Shara was a positive step but wanted more cooperation. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Syria knows the consequences of failing to cooperate.
U.N. investigators have said they would also seek to interview Syria’s former Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam who said in a television interview in December that Assad had threatened Hariri months before the assassination.
In his interview with El Osboa, Assad denied the claim.
“This incident did not happen. The aim of spreading these allegations is to link the threat to the assassination. The game is clear,” he said.
A U.N. interim report in October said Shara had given the commission “false information” by describing a meeting between Assad and Hariri as friendly, contrary to several Lebanese witnesses who said the president had threatened Hariri.