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Syria says UN cannot question Assad about slaying

BEIRUT -- Syria said yesterday that it would not let a UN team question President Bashar Assad about the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon.

But the information minister, Mahdi Dakhl-Allah, said Damascus had not ruled out a meeting between Assad and investigators. ''There is a difference between a questioning and an audience. The president receives visitors from Syria and outside Syria," he said.

In an earlier interview, Dakhl-Allah was asked whether Syria rejected a presidential meeting with the UN team. ''Certainly, because the issue is related to Syria's sovereignty. . . . This is a red line that cannot be crossed," he told Egyptian radio.

He said Syria would still cooperate with the UN inquiry into Hariri's assassination in a Beirut bomb blast Feb. 14.

The UN Security Council has threatened Syria with ''further action" if it does not cooperate fully with the investigators, who asked last month to interview Assad, his foreign minister, Farouq al-Shara, and other officials.

Diplomats say Syria has indicated it will let Shara meet with the UN team. He will not be among four Syrians that sources close to the inquiry said would be questioned in Vienna next week.

Abdel-Halim Khaddam, a former vice president of Syria, has accused Assad of ordering Hariri's killing. The inquiry has implicated Syrian officials and pro-Syrian Lebanese security chiefs.

Syria has denied any role in the blast, which killed Hariri and 22 others.

Asked whether he thought Assad was directly responsible for Hariri's assassination, Khaddam told Britain's Sky Television: ''In my belief, yes, my personal belief is that he ordered it."

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice threatened Wednesday to send the inquiry back to the Security Council if Syria's ''obstruction" continued.

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