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Lebanon - Syria to allow UN interview of Sharaa

International community escalates demands for full cooperation

As international calls for Syria to cooperate "more fully" with the UN probe into the murder of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri intensifed on Wednesday from French President Jacques Chirac, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Saudi King Abdullah, Syria confirmed it had agreed to the probe's request to interview its Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa.

"Syria must answer the demands" of the international inquiry into Hariri's killing, Chirac was quoted by a spokesman as saying during talks with his visiting Egyptian counterpart Mubarak on Wednesday over the Syrian issue.

The latest UN commission demands include requests to interview Syrian President Bashar Assad and Sharaa, and Syria was given a 10-day deadline, ending on January 10, to respond.

"Everything that destabilizes Lebanon will end up turning back against Syria," warned the president, who was a personal friend of the slain Hariri.

The French president also described Syria's situation as "very serious" while speaking on the sidelines of a New Year's press conference.

Syria, as it undergoes greater international pressure, agreed to an interview with Sharaa, while the request for an interview with Assad is expected to be more difficult, given that an earlier request in July to interview him was refused, stated diplomats close to the case.

"The request is being considered while other capitals are in contact with Syria on the same subject," a diplomatic source said. "As announced before there is no objection that the committee meets Sharaa. That position did not change."

Mubarak met with the Saudi king on Tuesday over the Syrian crisis, whereby they urged Syria to act now "to prevent any harm" coming to Damascus, said Soleiman Awad, the Egyptian president's spokesperson .

Awad, quoted by Al-Ahram daily, said Mubarak and King Abdullah agreed at a meeting Tuesday that the probe should work "to unveil the truth on the assassination ... in keeping with international law."

They also agreed during their talks in Jeddah that "the cooperation of Damascus with

the international commission of inquiry is necessary to avoid any harm" to Syria, he said.

The two leaders also underlined "the need to preserve the historic links between Lebanon and Syria."

Al-Ahram said Mubarak's consultations with King Abdullah and Chirac were part of his "regional and international actions to save the situation in Syria and Lebanon."

At the same time, reports have circulated that a Saudi official, allegedly Prince Bandar bin Sultan, will be meeting with the Syrian president on Wednesday to assist Syria and relay the Saudi king's message.

The U.S. stepped up its pressure on Syria, with the U.S. ambassador at the UN accusing Syria of "obstructing the UN probe."

"Syria's record to date has been one of obstructing the investigation, of tampering with the evidence and not making witnesses available in a timely fashion," said Bolton, speaking at the UN headquarters in New York.

"The Security Council has made it clear that it expects full and unconditional compliance and said expressly in its resolutions that additional measures could be taken if need be," Bolton said.

"We're trying to get the government of Syria to cooperate as it's required to do. The ball is in their court," he said.

In response, the Syrian envoy to the UN, Faysal Mekdad, criticized Bolton, saying "Bolton is known for his stances against the UN, the international community and the Arab causes."

Bolton's comments came after Syria confirmed it had received the UN commission's request to interview Assad and Sharaa.

The requests for interviews have been launched after the former Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam, who is based in Paris, charged last week that Assad had threatened the slain Hariri several months before his assassination.

Al-Jazeera was set to broadcast an interview with Khaddam on Wednesday, but Khaddam requested it be postponed until Thursday at 8:30 p.m. local Lebanese time.

Meanwhile, Elaph Web site published that Khaddam and the Egyptian president may meet in "in secret," after Mubarak's meeting with Chirac.

At the same time, U.S. ambassador to Lebanon Jeffery Feltman stressed the importance of Khaddam's statements to the investigation.

"His words speak for themselves. What is important is the position that he occupied in the Syrian government for many years. He speaks with a certain authority and so what he says is important," said Feltman to the reporters after a meeting with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora on Wednesday.

"His words reveal how the Syrian occupation in Lebanon worked," he added.

Beirut,01 09 2006
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