The family of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri called Thursday for an international commission to look into his slaying, as investigators combed the charred wreckage left by the bomb that killed him in a search for clues.
Pressure intensified here and abroad for Hariri’s killers to be caught amid speculation that Syria had a role in killing the 60-year-old billionaire. More than 200,000 mourners attended his funeral Wednesday.
Monday’s assassination of Hariri in a bomb blast claimed 16 other lives and increased tension in Lebanon and its neighboring powerbroker, Syria, which has announced it is forming a united front with Iran, which America claims is building nuclear bombs, to confront possible threats.
Word of the two-country alliance came as Washington recalled its ambassador to Syria. France also backed renewed U.S. calls for Syria to withdraw its 15,000 troops from Lebanon, where they have been based since the early stages of the 1975-90 civil war.
Searching the blast site
Lebanese investigators searched the huge crater in the road and littered with blackened hulks of burned out cars where the explosion occurred. Despite loud calls for an inquiry into Hariri’s killing, few clues have surfaced and investigators are tightlipped.
His family on Thursday demanded an international investigation, though the Lebanese government opposes a foreign-led inquiry. It has, however, asked foreign investigators to assist.
“We call upon the international community to promptly take control of this issue and form an international investigation commission, since the assassination of Rafik Hariri is a terrorist act targeting Lebanon’s stability and national unity,” the Hariri family said in a statement. “We will not spare any effort or means to find the perpetrators of this crime no matter what their affiliation is.”
Lebanon has a history of not tracking down those responsible for political assassinations, including the 1989 assassins of Grand Mufti Hassan Khaled and President-elect Rene Mouawad, who died in separate car bombings, and the killers of Christian warlord Elie Hobeika, who was slain in 2002.
Thursday ends a three-day mourning period in Lebanon for Hariri, following his funeral Wednesday that drew the largest crowd seen in Lebanon, aside from a 1997 Mass by Pope John Paul II that attracted almost 1 million people.
Syria denies involvement in Hariri’s death, but this has done little to quell speculation it at least played a hand in killing Lebanon’s premier of 10 of 14 years following the civil war.
U.S. France call for thorough probe
The U.S. representative at the funeral, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, demanded a thorough murder investigation and urged Syria again to withdraw its troops.
“I don’t know who is responsible for this horrible act of terrorism. What I know is that those who are responsible need to be brought to justice quickly,” Burns said.
Burns also demanded Syria immediately implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon and stop interfering in Lebanese affairs.
French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier backed the call, telling France-Inter radio that “Syria must withdraw from Lebanon,” adding it was in the “general interest of this region.”
French President Jacques Chirac, a friend of Hariri’s, made a seven-hour visit to Lebanon to offer condolences. He said the assassination “angered the international community, and this requires that we shed the light on this heinous, indescribable act.”
Later, Chirac and his wife accompanied Hariri’s widow, Nazek, to her slain husband’s flower-covered grave. Hundreds of Hariri supporters chanted “Syria Out, Syria Out” before singing Lebanon’s national anthem.
“I don’t see how an assassination of such size could have been planned without Syria’s knowledge. It’s ludicrous to say the opposite,” French lawmaker Pierre Lellouche said in London.
The U.N. Security Council wants Lebanon’s government to investigate the killing and prosecute those responsible.
Lebanese Justice Minister Adnan Addoum said his government wants Swiss explosives and forensic experts to help in the murder investigation. A top prosecution official will meet Thursday with the Swiss ambassador.
Some also suggest the killing was carried out by rogue Syrian intelligence operatives or even factions among Lebanon’s myriad religious groups. Lebanese authorities have rejected the credibility of responsibility claims by previously unknown Islamic militants.