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ARAB-US RELATIONS - Jun 11 - US Accuses Syrians Of Assassination Plots.

The US has received "credible information" that Syrian operatives in Lebanon are planning the assassinations of senior Lebanese political leaders and that Syrian military intelligence forces are returning to Lebanon to create "an environment of intimidation", according to a senior Bush administration official, Scott McClellan. Syria has said that all of its military and intelligence officials left Lebanon by April 26. But on Jun 10, Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, disputed that assertion. "We are deeply concerned about Syria's interference and intimidation inside Lebanon", McClellan said. "We have called on the United Nations to send verification teams back to Lebanon". McClellan declined to discuss details of Syria's continued involvement in Lebanon, saying he would not comment on "intelligence matters". But on Jun 9 the senior Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the information had come from "a variety of Lebanese sources" and that "we assess it as credible". The information, he said, was gathered after the assassinations of former PM Rafik Hariri of Lebanon in February, and of Samir Kassir, a well-known journalist, on June 2. Both were outspoken critics of Syrian domination of Lebanese politics, and Kassir had blamed Syria for the assassination of Hariri. UN Sec Gen Kofi Annan, has said he is considering sending a UN team back to Lebanon to check whether Syrian intelligence officials are still operating there. After the Hariri assassination, Syria came under renewed pressure to remove the 14,000 troops stationed in Lebanon at the time, and it has said that it completed the job. A verification team sent by the UN Security Council, which had demanded the troops' removal, could not confirm that all military intelligence operatives had left. The senior Bush administration official said the timing of the Syrian involvement was especially important in light of a four-part parliamentary election being held last month and this month. "This is a moment when many politicians are facing overt Syrian intimidation in the middle of the election period", he said. "When Lebanese sources tell us that they are hearing that the Kassir killing will be followed by others, we take it seriously". The administration official volunteered the information about what he said was a "Syrian hit list" on the condition that he not be identified by name or agency. A spokesman for the official, when asked why the official would not make the assertions more openly, said it was because of the diplomatic sensitivities involved and the usual reluctance to discuss intelligence matters openly. It was clear that the official's statements, which were offered to reporters from at least two news organisations, were a deliberate signal of the Bush administration's continuing displeasure over the Syrian government's role in Lebanon. The official said that information about the threat had been disseminated to governments in the Middle East and Europe and that "we thought it would be useful to make this public as a deterrent to the Syrians". But intelligence officials said they could not immediately substantiate the reliability of the information cited by the administration official. A US State Department official said that word of a "hit list" had been "circulating among the Lebanese", but that no one in the administration had actually seen such a list and that its existence could not be independently verified. Since the Hariri assassination, which was widely viewed as having been carried out by Syria or its supporters, Lebanese politicians opposed to Syria's military presence over many decades and its influence generally have been on edge. Gen Michel Aoun, a Christian leader who recently returned to Lebanon after 15 years in exile, has been giving speeches from behind a bulletproof shield. Syria had stationed troops in Lebanon since a civil war began in the 1970s, ostensibly to stabilise the country.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Recorder
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 11, 2005
Words:628
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