UN probes al-Hariri suspects' finances

UN investigators probing the murder of Lebanon's ex-premier Rafiq al-Hariri have tightened the net around senior Lebanese and Syrian figures suspected of involvement in the killing by putting their financial dealings under scrutiny.

    Investigator Detlev Melhis will have access to bank statements

    Lebanon's central bank lifted the bank secrecy of the accounts of two Syrian officials and six pro-Syrian Lebanese figures, including four charged with murder, at the request of the UN commission, banking sources said on Thursday.

    The list includes Syrian Interior Minister General Ghazi Kanaan, who previously served as Syria's military intelligence chief in Lebanon, and his successor, General Rustom Ghazaleh.

    Ghazaleh held the Lebanon post until April 2005 when Syria's army pulled out of its smaller neighbour after a 29-year presence, in the face of intense domestic and international pressure following Hariri's February killing.

    Among the Lebanese figures are former pro-Syrian MP Nasser Qandil and Ad-Diyar newspaper's chief editor Charles Ayyub, who is considered close to Ghazaleh.

    Intelligence chiefs

    Four Lebanese intelligence chiefs who were arrested in August and charged over the murder of Hariri and 20 other people in a 14 February bomb blast on the Beirut seafront, make up the rest of the list.

    Elias Murr was included in the list
    by mistake, says the commission

    They are President Emile Lahoud's republican guard chief Mustafa Hamdan; former general security boss Jamil al-Sayyed; ex-internal security head Ali al-Haj; and former army intelligence director Raymond Azar.

    They have been charged with premeditated murder, attempted murder, carrying out acts of terrorism and possession of firearms and explosives.

    Defence Minister Elias Murr, a son-in-law of Lahoud, was also named, but the UN commission later issued a statement saying his inclusion on the list was an "unfortunate mistake".

    Secrecy laws waived

    Detlev Melhis, head of the UN commission, issued a request to prosecutor-general Said Mirza for the bank secrecy laws in force in Lebanon since 1956 to be waived on the eight account holders.

    Lebanese politicians had pointed
    the finger at pro-Syrian officials

    With the waiver, Beirut banks have been authorised to cooperate with the Lebanese judiciary and the UN probe.

    Melhis will have access to bank statements of the eight figures and their close associates over the past five years.

    While Syria controlled Lebanon, the banking system "served for money-laundering, all forms of corruption, to peddle influence and for private-sector racketeering", a banking expert told AFP, asking not to be named.

    But in a front-page commentary in his newspapers, Ayyoub said mockingly that access to the banks could dig up cases of accounts being overdrawn, triggering embarrassment rather than unveiling any truth on al-Hariri's murder.

    Security network

    On Monday, Melhis agreed with Syrian officials during a visit to Damascus on the format for questioning Syrian officials and is due to return at the end of next week.

    Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated
    in an explosion in February

    Melhis, who is due to report back to UN chief Kofi Annan at the end of October, is expected to question Kanaan, Ghazaleh and two key aides in Beirut, Mohammed Makhlouf and Jamaa Jamaa.

    The four served as the main pillars of the security network which Syria set up in Lebanon to consolidate its long domination.

    Melhis has insisted that no Syrian suspect has been identified, while also saying that he believes there are "more people involved" than the four Lebanese security chiefs arrested so far.

    Syrian officials have pledged to answer all questions put to them about the bomb blast that killed al-Hariri and was widely blamed on Syria and its allies in the then Lebanese government.



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