The Syrian general who effectively ran Lebanon for 20 years was found dead Wednesday morning in Damascus, just nine days before the release of a potentially explosive United Nations report that could implicate senior Syrian officials in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last February.
The Syrian government said that Ghazi Kenaan, 63, the interior minister and former head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, committed suicide in his office in central Damascus.
"The relevant agencies are investigating," according to a statement published by Syria's official news agency (SANA).
Gen. Kenaan's death is a stunning development as the UN-backed investigation into the killing of Mr. Hariri reaches a nail-biting climax.
"It's certainly related to the Hariri inquiry and absolutely will have an impact because a major witness has disappeared," says Marwan Hamade, Lebanese minister of telecommunications and a close friend of the slain premier who narrowly survived an assassination attempt a year ago.
Aside from the connection to the Hariri investigation, Kenaan was a powerful figure from the Alawite community, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam which forms the backbone of the Baathist regime in Syria. As such, some analysts say that the wily and experienced general was a potential candidate to replace Syria's youthful President Bashar al-Assad, especially as he may well have been considered an acceptable figure in American eyes.
"Washington has been talking about the adults taking over from the children, and Kenaan was one of the last of the so-called Old Guard still left. He was considered a real force," says Joshua Landis, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma presently based in Damascus and author of the influential Syriacomment.com weblog.
"It's hard to believe that Kenaan would commit suicide," adds Landis. "He was an active hardworking man who saw many hard times in his life and overcame them."
Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor, and his 100-strong team of investigators and technicians have spent four months doggedly tracking Hariri's killers, and interviewing hundreds of people, including three weeks ago Kenaan and other key Syrian officials involved with Lebanon. The findings of the investigation are to be submitted to the UN Security Council next week amid wide speculation that Syria will be held responsible.
Damascus, however, already under intense pressure from the United States over Iraq, insists it had nothing to do with the Feb. 14 bombing in central Beirut that killed Hariri and 19 others. This assassination provoked massive anti-Syrian demonstrations in Beirut which, combined with unrelenting international pressure, led to Syria's disengagement from Lebanon in April.
What will the UN report reveal?
The Lebanese media has been agog with speculation over the results of the report. On Tuesday night, Lebanon's New TV broadcast allegations that General Kenaan had admitted to Mr. Mehlis that he had amassed millions of dollars during "my reign of Lebanon."
"[Hariri] had at the time given me a $10 million check," New TV quoted Kenaan as saying in his testimony to the UN investigators. "We were making money from [Hariri] so how could we possibly kill him and close the flow of his riches?"
On Wednesday morning, Kenaan spoke to the Voice of Lebanon radio station to refute the allegations aired the previous evening.
"My testimony [to the UN investigators] was to shed light on an era during which we served Lebanon," he said. "Sadly, some media outlets have reported lies to mislead public opinion. I want to make clear that our relation with our Lebanese brothers in Lebanon was based on love and mutual respect."
He ended his comment by saying "I think this is the last statement I might give."
His body was found three hours later.
Kenaan, who headed Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon from 1982 to 2002, possessed a ruthless acumen which helped him confront the multiple challenges facing Syria in the war-torn Lebanon of the 1980s, successfully thwarting the ambitions of both the United States and Israel.
From his headquarters in the town of Anjar near the Syrian border, observers say Kenaan skillfully cajoled, threatened, and manipulated Lebanese politicians to ensure the interests of Syria were safeguarded.
He had established a good rapport with Hariri, the billionaire construction tycoon who as prime minister in the 1990s spearheaded Lebanon's postwar reconstruction drive.