Victory for Lebanese hungry for 'truth'

Lebanon agreed this weekend to an inquiry into Rafik Hariri's death. Another bomb exploded in Beirut Saturday.

The Lebanese government has reversed its opposition to an international investigation into the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri after a UN report released last week slammed the Lebanese authorities' handling of the case.

The decision to accept an independent investigation came as this city was rocked by another bomb blast Saturday evening, the third unclaimed explosion in eight days. The blast wounded six people further heightening tensions in this city already on edge since the Feb. 14 murder of Mr. Hariri.

"Lebanon agrees to the creation of an international commission of inquiry if the Security Council takes such a decision to uncover the truth in the assassination of Rafik Hariri," Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud said Saturday.

Lebanon's recent violent history has been marked by several high-profile assassinations of presidents and a prime minister. None were ever fully explained. But Hariri's murder has cut across sectarian lines and provoked an unprecedented nationwide demand for the truth.

The words "al haqiqah," Arabic for "the truth," is found all over Beirut, on billboards and car windows. It's symbolized by the blue ribbons many Lebanese are wearing on their lapels.

Under mounting domestic and international pressure, Emile Lahoud, the pro-Syrian Lebanese president, also promised to cooperate with the United Nations "on whatever method it adopts in order to know the identity of the perpetrators." It is a marked turnaround for the embattled Lebanese authorities that had opposed any international involvement in investigating Hariri's murder.

The US and France are expected to push for a new UN Security Council resolution calling for an independent investigation in the wake of the UN report's findings. The Security Council could meet as early as Tuesday.

The report, compiled by a UN fact-finding commission composed of investigators and experts from Ireland, Egypt, Morocco, and Switzerland, contained harsh criticism of both the Syrian and Lebanese authorities' handling of the investigation.

"The Lebanese security services have demonstrated serious and systematic negligence in carrying out the duties usually performed by a professional national security apparatus," it said.

The commission said that the scene of the blast that killed Hariri and 19 others "was not properly managed or preserved and as a result important evidence was either removed or destroyed without record." It also accused the Lebanese security services of dumping parts of a pickup truck in the bomb crater that were then photographed and labeled as evidence.

The Lebanese government has stated that Hariri was killed by a suicide bomber who detonated his vehicle as his motorcade swept by. A previously unknown Islamist group said in a video aired a few hours after the bombing that it had carried out a suicide attack against Hariri because he supported the Saudi government. On March 4, a Lebanese judicial source told Reuters that a tape from a surveillance camera outside a nearby branch of HSBC bank proved that a suicide bomber caused the blast.

The UN commission's report also cites the HSBC tape and its footage of a suspicious white pickup truck traveling along the seafront road less than two minutes before Hariri's motorcade arrived. The report said that the "main thrust of the security force investigation is focused on this one avenue of investigation."

The Lebanese authorities allege that the pickup truck contained the bomb. But the HSBC tape, a copy of which has been obtained by the Monitor, does not capture the actual point of the blast, which lies a few dozen yards out of sight from the camera. So it remains unclear whether the truck driver was indeed a suicide bomber who stopped the vehicle at the bomb site to wait for Hariri's motorcade or an innocent person who carried on driving.

On the video, Hariri's convoy comes into view shortly after the truck passes, then disappears around the corner. The blast occurred a second after the last vehicle in the convoy passed out of view.

"It became clear to the mission that the Lebanese investigation process suffers from serious flaws and has neither the capacity nor the commitment to reach a satisfactory and credible conclusion," the UN report said.

The UN commission did not confine its inquiries to the handling of the investigation but also described the political atmosphere during the months leading to the assassination. The report said that Hariri's murder occurred "in a political and security context marked by an acute polarization around the Syrian influence in Lebanon."

Lebanon woke on Easter Sunday to another bomb attack the night before that destroyed several warehouses in the mainly Christian suburb of Baushrieh in east Beirut. The evening blast was the third such attack since March 19 and appears to follow a pattern of creating tension while avoiding mass casualties.

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