x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

UN reveals new clues in Hariri killing

A report into the death of Rafiq Hariri offers evidence that could link other assassinations to the network thought to have killed the Lebanese PM.

Rescue workers and soldiers stand around a crater from the bomb that tore through the motorcade of Rafiq Hariri in Beirut in 2005.
Rescue workers and soldiers stand around a crater from the bomb that tore through the motorcade of Rafiq Hariri in Beirut in 2005.

BEIRUT // The United Nations special commission into the assassination of Rafiq Hariri has found evidence that could link other assassinations to the network thought to have killed the former Lebanese prime minister in 2005, according to a new report. The investigation, headed by Daniel Bellemare, a Canadian prosecutor, "reports that it has acquired new information that may allow it to link additional individuals to the network that carried out the assassination", the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, wrote in a memo to the Security Council.

Mr Ban's note did not specify the nature of the new evidence, but the team of investigators, which was formed after the Feb 14 2005 car bombing that killed Hariri and 21 other people in Beirut, has been additionally tasked with investigating 20 other assassinations or attempts on the lives of a range of Lebanon's political, media and security elites since Oct 2004. The investigation is the first step for an international tribunal authorised by the UN to try anyone accused of participation in the assassination of Hariri or in any of the other 20 incidents that mostly targeted anti-Syrian political figures and journalists or security and intelligence officials. Hariri's supporters still nominally control the Lebanese government in a complex power-sharing arrangement with the pro-Syrian opposition led by Hizbollah and have continually insisted that Syria remains responsible for the attacks. Both Syria and their allies in Lebanon have repeatedly denied any link to the various attacks and have often insisted the investigation is politically motivated in an effort to weaken Syria's role in Lebanon.

One clue as to the new direction of the investigation can be found in a reference in the report to the discovery of a gun used in one political assassination. Investigators have sent the weapon outside Lebanon for forensics testing to determine if it is linked to other killings. The only assassination by firearm investigated by the commission is the 2006 murder of Pierre Gemayal, a prominent anti-Syrian politician, in an East Beirut suburb. Local media reports said that investigators suspect a link between that killing and Fatah al Islam, an al Qa'eda-inspired militant group accused of a series of bombings and which fought the Lebanese army in a bloody three-month siege of the Nahr al Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon.

The Lebanese government has accused Syria of supporting Fatah al Islam, a charge roundly denied by Damascus, and Hariri's supporters fear that as the tribunal draws closer, more violence could be used to intimidate witnesses or that Syria might withdraw its support for the investigation, which the UN has described thus far as "adequate". "We are satisfied with the results of the report," said Mustafa Aloush, an MP from Hariri's former party. "So far it has not been politicised, but we are afraid that while the tribunal is operating the accusations of certain people could be politicised." He added that he expected Syria to stop co-operation or attempt to derail the investigation.

Lebanese security officials refused to speak on the record about the investigation, but said that links between the Hariri plot members and radicals that later became known as Fatah al Islam are being strongly pursued. The first draft of the investigation's report, issued in 2006, pointed directly at pro-Syrian political figures and security officials in the Lebanese government, as well as prominent Syrian officials, as members of the network that killed Hariri, but after an intense outcry from Syria and its allies, subsequent reports have been more vague and tempered in their analysis.

Forensic teams are pursuing DNA and other evidence in an attempt to prove the country of origin of the suicide bomber who set off the explosion that struck Hariri's convoy in downtown Beirut. The bomber is widely thought to be a militant from the Gulf, who had originally gone to Iraq to fight the US occupation but has not been formally identified. But Mr Aloush argued that any link to an Islamic group only serves to distract the investigation away from the actual perpetrators, the Syrian regime.

"These claims [of an al Qa'eda link] are made by [the pro-Syrian opposition] trying to come up with their own analysis to point finger at jihadi groups, aiming at confusing public opinion and covering up other assassinations of other people," he said. mprothero@thenational.ae