DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) – Syrian President Bashar Assad ordered the creation of a judicial committee on Saturday to investigate the murder of a former Lebanese prime minister, as Damascus continued its scramble to ease intense and growing international pressure.

The U.N. investigation into the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has linked top Syrian and Lebanese security officials to the killing and said that Damascus had been uncooperative in the probe.

Syria also said Saturday that the offices of Islamic Jihad, one of a number of militant anti-Israeli groups that formerly operated out of Damascus, had been closed years ago.

On Friday, the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia called for Syria to shut the Islamic Jihad office.

An unidentified Syrian Foreign Ministry official was quoted by SANA, the official news agency, as saying that Islamic Jihad’s military activities were planned from the Palestinian territories and not in Syria. The group claimed responsibility for a bombing on Wednesday that killed five Israelis.

By issuing a decree to set up the special judicial committee to probe the bombing that killed Hariri and 20 others in Beirut, Assad appeared to be responding to chief U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis’s call for the Syrians to conduct their own investigation to “fill in the gaps” about who orchestrated the terrorist act.

SANA said the committee would be made up of Syria’s prosecutor-general, the military prosecutor and a judge to be named by the justice minister.

They will be ordered to question Syrian “civilians and military personnel on all matters relating to the U.N. investigation commission’s mission.”

Assad said the commission would cooperate with Mehlis’ investigation and Lebanese judicial authorities. The Lebanese have arrested and charged four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals in the Hariri assassination.

The United States, France and Britain are working on a Security Council resolution to be unveiled Monday that was expected to threaten the Syrians with sanctions if it failed to cooperate with the U.N. inquiry. The resolution was believed to require that Syria arrest anyone U.N. investigators consider a suspect in the killing and allow the detainee to be questioned either outside Syria or without Syrian officials present.

The United States has said it wanted to also require Assad to submit to questioning, something he has rejected so far.

While Syria has roundly rejected accusations of its involvement in Hariri’s killing, it did buckle under international pressure and withdrew its soldiers from Lebanon in April, ending a 29-year presence in its smaller neighbor.

Syria also faces charges from the United States and Iraq that it allows militant foreign fighters to cross its border into Iraq to join the Sunni-led insurgency.

On Saturday, the Interior Ministry ordered border guards to pay special attention to men between the ages of 18 and 30 who arrive in the country to stop “suspects planning to carry terrorist acts inside the country,” SANA reported. Suspects were to be deported immediately.

AP-ES-10-29-05 1944EDT


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