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Lebanon leaders reject report on Hariri

UN blamed Syria for rising tensions

BEIRUT -- Senior Lebanese officials yesterday rejected a UN report blaming Syria for tensions that led to the slaying of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, saying the UN mission exceeded its authority in accusing the government of negligence.

The report from a UN fact-finding mission was sharply critical of Syria and its allied Lebanese government. It said that there was evidence Syria's president threatened Hariri with physical harm and that the Beirut government showed a lack of commitment to finding out who killed him, bungling and outright manipulating the investigation.

Many Lebanese blame Syria and the Lebanese government for the slaying of Hariri -- an opponent of Syrian domination -- in a Feb. 14 bombing that also killed 17 others on a seafront street in Beirut. Officials in Damascus and Beirut vehemently deny any role in the killing.

The report stopped short of blaming Syria in the killing, but did say it was to blame for the political tensions in the country before Hariri's death.

Mahmoud Hammoud, Lebanon's foreign minister, said the UN fact-finding team, which released its report Thursday, had gone beyond its mandate.

''The [UN] mission had no authority to allow it to reach these conclusions," he said. ''We see this as infringement on the role of the Lebanese government."

Still, he insisted that the government ''welcomes all means" to find the truth about the bombing.

Late Thursday, President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon urged UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to do ''what is necessary" to uncover the truth behind Hariri's assassination, signaling Lebanon's acceptance of an international inquiry that it had been persistently rejecting since the bombing.

The UN report does not directly assign blame for Hariri's death. But it did say that ''it is clear that the assassination took place in a political and security context marked by an acute polarization around the Syrian influence in Lebanon."

Hammoud rejected this, saying tensions were caused by the United Nations' call for Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in Resolution 1559.

''We say that tension began when signals starting coming from abroad that a resolution was to be issued by the Security Council -- it later became 1559. This resolution pushed the atmosphere toward political polarization," Hammoud said.

Justice Minister Adnan Addoum emphasized that the UN report was not a legal opinion and rejected claims of evidence tampering.

''We consider it a technical security document and it cannot be considered a legal and judicial document," he told the news conference.

Still, Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh acknowledged ''flaws" in the security system, as the report noted.

The report said there was a ''distinct lack of commitment" by the authorities to investigate the crime, and it detailed a host of flaws, including the disappearance of crucial evidence and tampering at the scene of the blast. Parts of a pickup were brought to the scene, placed in the crater, and photographed as evidence, it said.

Syrian military intelligence shares responsibility with Lebanese security forces for not providing ''security, protection, law, and order" in Lebanon, the report said.

''This is far from reality," Hammoud said.

Addoum denied that car parts were put in the crater. ''The proof is that the wreckage of the car was found in the sea near the site and was retrieved by divers from the international experts," he said.

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