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U.N. report blasts Syria, calls for international probe into killing of ex-Lebanese leader

BEIRUT, Lebanon—A United Nations team investigating the Feb. 14 bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri accused the Syrian government on Thursday of fostering the lawless climate and political tensions surrounding his death, but stopped short of blaming Syria for the assassination.

The scathing 19-page report also held Lebanon's pro-Syrian government responsible for deteriorating security and a flawed investigation into the attack.

The U.N. report called for a more intensive, independent, international probe into the bombing, which it said also killed 19 other people.

"There was a serious failure on the part of the Lebanese security apparatus to predict and prevent the assassination," wrote Deputy Irish Police Commissioner Peter FitzGerald, the head of the U.N. fact-finding team, which spent three weeks in Lebanon investigating Hariri's killing.

But even an international team isn't likely to succeed in finding out who killed Hariri if the pro-Syrian heads of Lebanon's security apparatus remain in power, FitzGerald said. In the current environment, such a team wouldn't be able to receive the cooperation it would need from authorities, he said.

"The government of Syria clearly exerted influence that goes beyond the reasonable exercise of cooperative or neighborly relations," he wrote. "It is obvious that this atmosphere provided the backdrop for the assassination of Mr. Hariri."

FitzGerald added: "International and regional political support will be necessary to safeguard Lebanon's national unity and to shield its fragile polity from unwarranted pressure."

The recommendations echoed demands that anti-Syrian opposition leaders and demonstrators have been making in the popular uprising that's flourished after the assassination. Mass demonstrations forced the resignation of the Lebanese Cabinet last month and pressured Syria into pulling back its 15,000 troops and intelligence agents into eastern Lebanon.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has promised to withdraw Syrian forces from Lebanon following negotiations with the Lebanese government.

Opposition leaders couldn't immediately be reached for comment on the report, which wasn't released at the United Nations in New York until after midnight Lebanon time.

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud wasn't expected to receive the report until morning, said his spokesman, Rafik Shalala. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Lahoud earlier in the evening and reviewed some of the points in the report, Shalala said.

"President Lahoud told Secretary-General Annan to do whatever is necessary to know the truth about this assassination in a short time," Shalala said. He declined to offer any immediate comment on the recommendations.

Bassem Yamout, a parliament member who split with Hariri when the former prime minister joined the opposition movement, said Thursday that he questioned whether a U.N. team could be independent given U.S. influence on the body. He's recommended that Hariri's relatives pick a Lebanese judge or lawyer "trusted by everybody" to serve on any international commission investigating the murder.

FitzGerald and his investigators agreed with Lebanese investigators that the explosion that killed Hariri and the others likely came from a pickup truck containing a TNT bomb weighing about a ton.

But the U.N. team cast doubt on the 22-year-old bombing suspect identified as the perpetrator, Ahmad Abu Adas, a Palestinian born in Saudi Arabia who moved to Lebanon with his family 14 years ago. There's no evidence that Adas had the financial or logistical means or the militant connections needed to carry out the sophisticated attack, FitzGerald wrote.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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