First Published: 2005-06-10

Jumblatt: Syrian agents still in Lebanon

Lebanese Druze leader believes entire opposition is being targeted, more assassinations likely.


Middle East Online

By Sophie Claudet - BEIRUT

Jumblatt repeating accusation

Syrian intelligence agents remain in Lebanon despite assurances they have left and more political murders can be expected, a key opposition figure has said in a claim echoed by a senior US official quoted in The New York Times.

"I believe the entire opposition is being targeted," said Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in a television interview late Thursday night, repeating an accusation he has often made since the murder in February of former premier Rafiq Hariri.

"The assassinations will continue with or without the knowledge of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Jumblatt was speaking only a week after the latest political killing - the death of prominent anti-Syrian journalist Samir Kassir.

Lebanon's pro-Syrian regime and its political masters in Damascus have denied widespread allegations that they were behind the two killings, as well as a series of bombings since Hariri's death that have killed three others.

Under heightened Western and Lebanese popular pressure after the shock murder of Hariri, Syria pulled its troops and security agents out of Lebanon in late April, after 29 years.

In its Friday edition, The New York Times said Washington has "credible information" that Syrian operatives plan to try to assassinate senior Lebanese politicians and that Syrian military intelligence forces are returning to Lebanon to create "an environment of intimidation."

The paper cited a senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, who said there was a "Syrian hit list."

The report comes just ahead of Sunday's third round of a four-stage parliamentary election in Lebanon that many accuse Syria of trying to destabilize.

The official said the information had come from "a variety of Lebanese sources" and that "we assess it as credible."

"This is a moment when many politicians are facing overt Syrian intimidation in the middle of the election period," said the official. "When Lebanese sources tell us that they are hearing that the Kassir killing will be followed by others, we take it seriously."

In his remarks Thursday night, Jumblatt accused the former Syrian military intelligence chief in Lebanon, General Rustom Ghazaleh, of meddling in the election through his agents.

"Rustom Ghazaleh, whom the Syrian leadership should have thrown in jail, has blocked an electoral alliance between (Christian) MP Elie Skaff and the Hariri group," a reference to the late premier's son and political successor, Saad.

Contacted by AFP, Skaff denied he met with Ghazaleh since Syria's departure from Lebanon.

But several people said they had seen Syrian officers in the Bekaa Valley and northern Lebanon "talking local mayors into voting and pushing the population to vote for candidates close to Damascus," one of them said.

The US official said governments in the Middle East and Europe had been warned about the threat facing Lebanese figures, adding: "we thought it would be useful to make this public as a deterrent to the Syrians."

He said the administration of US President George W. Bush, which is particularly at odds with Damascus over its alleged attempt to obtain weapons of mass destruction and support of insurgents in Iraq, would not ignore the threat.

But he refused to elaborate on the kind of actions that might be taken.

US intelligence and State Department officials said they could not immediately assert the report's reliability.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan raised the possibility Thursday that Syrian intelligence may not have completely withdrawn from Lebanon.

"We are now receiving reports that there may be elements that are still there, and we are considering the possible return of the verification team to ascertain what is going on," he said.

A UN verification mission to Lebanon had reported on May 23 that Syria had "fully" withdrawn troops from its neighbor, in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1559, co-sponsored in September by the United States and France.


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