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Oct. 12, 2005, 9:26AM

Syrian official commits suicide after probe

Reuters News Service

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan committed suicide in his office today, the state news agency said, three weeks after being questioned by a U.N. team probing the assassination of Lebanon's Rafik al-Hariri.

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The U.N.'s chief investigator is expected to issue his report to the Security Council next week on the inquiry into the February killing of the former Lebanese prime minister.

Syria, already under pressure from the United States over Iraq, has increasingly felt the weight of Lebanese and international charges it was linked to Hariri's death. Syrian officials have said in recent weeks the U.N. report would show Damascus had nothing to do with the killing.

"The minister of interior died in his office this afternoon after committing suicide and the authorities are investigating the incident," the SANA agency said in a report.

The Syrian government issued a statement mourning Kanaan's death but gave no other details. State radio and television continued normal programming.

"Until now, we don't know the reason (of the suicide) but our investigation will tell us quickly...," Information Minister Mahdi Dakhl-Allah told Al Jazeera pan-Arab television.

"Whatever happens, stability won't be shattered in Syria. We are one of the most stable countries in the region."

Asked if the suicide was linked to the U.N. investigation led by Detlev Mehlis, Dakhl-Allah said: "Of course, the timing is sensitive. But I'm talking about facts and not suspicion and speculation...

"The result of Mehlis's investigation is well known -- Syria had nothing to do with it."

David Welch, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said after talks in Beirut: "I have heard the news. It's a big event there and we will see what import it has."

Hospital sources said Kanaan was taken from his office at the Interior Ministry in Martyrs Square in the Marja district of Damascus to the nearby private Shami Hospital before midday.

He committed suicide around 11 a.m. (0900 GMT), a political analyst close to the government said.

Kanaan, who was Syria's top official in Lebanon for two decades until 2002, had been interviewed by U.N. investigators probing Hariri's murder.

Four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals have been arrested and charged in Hariri's assassination. Many Lebanese say Syria ordered the killing but Damascus has repeatedly denied any links.

Three hours before the news broke, Kanaan spoke to a Beirut radio station, denying reports in Lebanese media that he showed the U.N. investigators photocopies of cheques paid to him by the late Hariri.

"I think this is the last statement I might give," Kanaan said at the end of the phone interview with Voice of Lebanon.

"My testimony ... was to shed the light on an era during which we have served Lebanon. Sadly some media outlets have reported lies to mislead public opinion," he said.

"I want to make clear that our relation with our brothers in Lebanon was based on love and mutual respect ... We have served Lebanon's interest with honour and honesty."

Kanaan, a 63-year-old Baathist major general, was the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon from 1982 until 2002.

He was appointed interior minister in 2004. In 2002, he was appointed as chief of the Syrian Political Security Directorate.

Earlier this year, the U.S. treasury announced it was freezing the assets of Kanaan and his successor as Syria's top official in Lebanon, General Rustom Ghazali, in a move it said was "intended to financially isolate bad actors supporting Syria's efforts to destabilize its neighbors".

The Lebanese Central Bank last month opened up the accounts of both men to the U.N. investigators.

Kanaan was married with four sons and two daughters.



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