Syria brings out mass protest of U.N. report; U.S. urges tough stand, France says wait
DAMASCUS, Syria – Civil servants and students massed in the streets Monday to protest a U.N. report implicating Syria in the killing of a Lebanese leader, joining in a government-orchestrated campaign to drum up support before a U.N. Security Council meeting.The United States and Britain were pushing for the council to take a tough stand against Syria at a meeting Tuesday, but France said sanctions shouldn’t be voted on until investigators finish looking into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.”Let us allow that commission to run its full course,” French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told reporters in Paris.At the same time, French diplomats at the United Nations were working with U.S. officials trying to mobilize support for a strong resolution demanding that Syria cooperate fully with the investigation.”This is true confessions time now for the government of Syria,” U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said. “No more obstruction. No more half measures. We want substantive cooperation and we want it immediately.”White House spokesman Scott McClellan called the U.N. report “very troubling” and said President Bush had directed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to arrange a Security Council meeting at the earliest possible date “to discuss how to proceed.” The U.S. target date for Rice and her counterparts to agree on a resolution is Oct. 31.Syria’s official SANA news agency said “hundreds of thousands” of people gathered in Damascus and Aleppo to demonstrate against the “unjust accusations” made by the report, released last week by chief U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis.The report implicated top Syrian security officials in Hariri’s Feb. 14 assassination, drawing a strenuous denial from President Bashar Assad’s authoritarian regime. Syrian officials called the report politicized, biased and inaccurate.Lebanon’s major pro-Syrian groups, Amal and Hezbollah, also criticized the U.N. report, saying in a statement Monday in Beirut that a more thorough investigation was needed “based on facts and tangible evidence – not politics.” Their position conflicts with that of Lebanon’s Cabinet, which has endorsed the U.N. report.The mass demonstrations in Syria were a concerted attempt to drum up support for Assad amid heightening international pressure.”Mr. Mehlis: we are not murderers,” read one banner. “Syria will never be another Iraq,” said another in central Damascus’ Sabe Bahrat Square, where the crowd chanted: “With our soul and our blood, we redeem you, Bashar!”Many demonstrators waved large posters of the Syrian president and his father, the late President Hafez Assad.The government gave students a one-day holiday and encouraged civil servants to take part in the rallies, which were organized by state-run labor unions. Police diverted traffic to make way for the protesters.Addressing the Damascus crowd from a balcony, a speaker said: “The masses of our people stand united in Arab Damascus today to condemn Mehlis’ report and to declare their absolute rejection of the continuing U.S. threats against Syria. These threats have been stepped up since the occupation of Iraq.”State newspapers published editorials condemning the U.N. report, which found Hariri’s assassination could not have been carried out without the complicity of Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services.Demonstrator Linda Taha, 30, a civil servant, said Syria had nothing to do with Hariri’s death.”The report is politicized in accord with U.S. and Israeli desires to pressure Syria and undermine its steadfastness,” Taha said.Syrian Christian and Muslim clergymen also handed a letter to the French, U.N. and Vatican envoys in Damascus rejecting the “unjustified accusations and false fabrications” against Syria in the U.N. report, SANA said.Syria’s government has long argued that it is being attacked by the West because of its uncompromising stand in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and Israel’s occupation of Arab land.On Sunday, Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw jointly urged the Security Council to take a strong position against Syria.Asked Monday if sanctions would be considered against Syria, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Sky News: “I don’t think you rule anything out going forward.””You can’t get any more serious than trying to destroy the democracy of another country by terrorism,” he said.For more than a year, Washington has been increasing pressure on Syria, accusing it of interfering in Lebanon’s affairs, allowing insurgents to cross into Iraq and supporting Palestinian militant groups. Syria denies these charges.Mehlis was scheduled to brief the Security Council on the report at an open meeting Tuesday.While the United States, France and Britain have strongly supported his findings and are demanding Syrian cooperation, Russia and China have been much more reticent. All five countries have power to veto any action by the council.”My government is always very cautious with such sensitive issues as Syria-Lebanon,” Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Andrey Denisov, said Monday in New York.