UN probe to quiz Syrian officials



Syria has agreed to allow UN investigators to quiz its officials over the assassination of ex-Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said the questioning of five officials would be carried out at UN offices in Vienna.

He said Syria had been given "reassurances" on its sovereignty.

Syria has previously blocked officials wanted for questioning by the inquiry from leaving the country.

Detlev Mehlis, who heads the UN inquiry into the killing, has been unwilling to accept a Syrian offer to allow questioning either in Syria itself or at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo.

"The (Syrian) leadership has decided to inform Mehlis that it accepts his suggestion, as a compromise, that the venue to listen to the five Syrian officials be the UN headquarters in Vienna," Mr Muallem said.

The UN confirmed the news. Spokeswoman Marie Okabe said Mr Mehlis had informed UN Secretary General Kofi Annan by telephone that agreement had been reached.

Mass protests
One potential sticking point remains, says the BBC's Jon Leyne in neighbouring Jordan.

The UN originally said it wanted to speak to six Syrian officials, but Syria is talking of five officials travelling to Vienna, he says.

Mr Muallem would not identify the officials involved, saying it was a matter of the "secrecy of the investigation", or say when the interviews might take place.

Previous reports from Lebanon suggest the officials include the head of Syrian military intelligence, Assef Shawkat, a brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria has repeatedly denied any involvement in the truck bomb explosion in Beirut on 14 February that killed Mr Hariri and 20 others.

But an interim report by Mr Mehlis and his team last month implicated senior Syrian and Lebanese security officials.

The UN Security Council has told Syria to co-operate fully with the investigation or face unspecified action.

Mr Hariri's assassination sparked massive anti-Syrian street protests in Lebanon.

The protests led to the pull-out of thousands of Syrian troops stationed in Lebanon.