By Leila Hatoum
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
BEIRUT: In the latest official Syrian comment on the increasing pressure on Damascus, Premier Naji Otari said "all the gates of hell will open on the U.S. if it attempts to attack Syria." Otari was replying to a report this week in Newsweek magazine revealing that Washington had debated launching military strikes inside Syria against camps used by insurgents operating in Iraq.
Citing unnamed government sources, the magazine reported that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had managed to block the proposal during a meeting of senior U.S. officials on October 1.
Speaking to reporters in Shanon, Ireland, on a four-nation tour, Rice said: "I am not going to comment on internal deliberations in the administration."
Otari also accused Lebanese officials of being unable to make an independent decision, saying they were answerable to the French and U.S. ambassadors to Lebanon.
Addressing his Lebanese counterpart Fouad Siniora, the Syrian premier said: "Apparently Siniora forgot all of what we have discussed when he visited Damascus after his recent return from a visit to the U.S."
Siniora had held talks with several officials in Damascus to resolve a border dispute between the two countries in June.
Pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat reported yesterday Otari had refused to answer repeated phone calls from Siniora on Monday.
The paper quoted unidentified "informed Syrian sources in Damascus" as saying the Assad regime believes Siniora has reneged on promises he made to the Syrian president during a visit on July 31.
The regime is particularly outraged over Siniora's allegation in a recent interview with The Washington Post that all of Lebanon is convinced that Syria engineered the Hariri murder.
In other related media responses to the mounting pressure on Damascus, Syrian daily Tishrin said in an editorial yesterday that Washington is criticizing Syria to cover its own policy failures in the Middle East.
Assistant U.S. Secretary of State David Welch had warned the Assad regime Sunday that it was not heeding calls to change its behavior in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
Welch has been touring the Middle East, meeting with leaders in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He is expected to hold talks with Lebanese officials today.
"Barely a day passes without such accusations as if Syria has become an excuse for the
U.S. faults in the region," the editorial said.
Separately, Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor heading the international investigation into Hariri's murder, was expected to reach Beirut late last night from Larnaca, where he is placing the final touches on his report according to sources close to the Lebanese judiciary.
Mehlis moved his base of operations to the Cypriot port town early in the day citing security concerns.
But the source said: "Some experts from Mehlis' team are still in Lebanon, and Mehlis will join them for further discussions with Lebanese officials before presenting his report."
The nature of Mehlis' report has spurred mounting speculations, fears and an ongoing public row between Lebanese and Syrian officials.
In local developments, Lebanese Justice Minister Charles Rizk held several meetings with various ambassadors to Lebanon in which he tried to gather support for an extension of the international investigation's term to allow it to provide support for the Lebanese judiciary.
The UN team's mandate is set to expire on October 25. UN chief Kofi Annan has refused an oral request from Siniora made last week, saying he would only consider an official written request from the government.
In the meantime, the Center to Protect Journalists in New York has presented a letter to Annan asking him to include the attacks Lebanese journalists May Chidiac and Samir Qassir in Mehlis' mission.
"The Committee to Protect Journalists today called on the UN Security Council to expand its probe into the murder of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri to include the alarming attacks against Lebanese journalists," the letter said.
- With Agencies and additional reporting by Majdoline Hatoum