UN finds evidence of official cover-up in Hariri assassination

By Robert Fisk in Beirut

The Independent

14 March 2005

As the United Nations' Irish-led special investigation team here prepares to report that the Lebanese authorities have covered up evidence of the murder on 14 February of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri, his two sons have fled Lebanon after hearing that they too are in danger of assassination.

Mr Hariri's elder son, Bahar, has flown to Geneva while Saad has left hurriedly for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, after warnings that they could be the next targets of their father's assassins.

President George Bush is expected to announce on Wednesday that Syrian - and perhaps Lebanese - military intelligence officers were involved in Mr Hariri's death; the bombing killed 18 other civilians.

The UN's Irish, Egyptian and Moroccan investigation team has now been joined by three Swiss bomb experts following the discovery that many of the smashed vehicles in Hariri's convoy were moved from the scene of the massacre only hours afterwards - and before there was time for an independent investigation. Yesterday, frogmen were sent into the sea off the Beirut Corniche to recover the wreckage of the one car in the Hariri convoy that was not taken away by the authorities because it was blasted over a hotel wall into the Mediterranean by the force of the explosion. If they successfully recover parts of the vehicle, they may be able to discover the nature of the explosives. First reports that Hariri was killed by a car bomb are now being challenged by evidence that the explosives - estimated at 600kg - could have been buried beneath the seafront avenue.

A unique photograph handed to The Independent in Beirut - which is now also in the hands of the UN investigators - was taken on the afternoon of 12 February, about 36 hours before the bombing. It shows a drain cover in the road at the exact spot where the explosion was to tear a 30-foot crater in the highway, instantly killing Hariri and many of his bodyguards.

The section of roadway is marked off by "no parking" signs which have been left there innocently by staff of the nearby HSBC bank. But a mysterious object can be seen on the left edge of the drain cover. Both the metal cover and an extensive area of roadway around it were atomised by the bomb.

The picture also shows two buildings which the UN police officers are investigating as possible locations of the bomber who detonated the explosives: one is on top of the circular building in the centre of the photo - which houses a Beirut hotel as well as a Lebanese army retirement fund office - and the other is on top of the war-damaged Holiday Inn (far right) which has been empty for more than a decade. The balloon in the centre of the photograph regularly takes tourists on sightseeing tours of Beirut.

Some members of the Hariri family have been told that the report of the UN inquiry team will be so devastating that it will force a full international investigation of the murder of "Mr Lebanon" and his entourage, perhaps reaching to the higher echelons of the Syrian and Lebanese governments.

Hariri opposed the continued Syrian military presence in Lebanon and many Lebanese have blamed the Syrians for his murder. The UN investigators have become convinced that there was a cover-up of evidence at the very highest levels of the Lebanese and Syrian intelligence authorities.

In their search for information, at least one Irish police officer has now interviewed Brigadier General Rustum Ghazale, the senior Syrian army intelligence officer in Lebanon, at his headquarters in Aanjar. He is believed to have pointed out to the police that his job was only to safeguard Syrian forces in the country - an assertion which will require more than a few grains of Syrian salt to be believed.

President Bush's expected remarks on Wednesday will follow two extraordinary days of public demonstrations in Beirut. In the first, today, opposition politicians will try to gather a million followers to protest against the government's failure to resign and to reveal the truth about Hariri's murder - as well as to dwarf last Tuesday's half-million strong Hizbollah rally in support of Syria. The second, by pro-Syrian demonstrators, is planned to march to the US embassy in the Aukar suburb of east Beirut.

All this is being organised while violent rumours sweep Beirut. One says that the Syrians have been handing out weapons to pro-Syrian Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila in Beirut and Ein el-Helwe in Sidon.

Investigations by The Independent strongly suggest that this in untrue; the Palestinians have quite enough weapons without being resupplied, and many of them would like to be disarmed to end lethal inter-Palestinian factional fighting. But on Saturday night in the Sabra camp, someone knifed to death an elderly Syrian fruit-seller in what was an obvious attempt to provoke violence.