|'This is the last statement it is possible for me to give'
|last public words of Ghazi Kenaan before his death
Ghazi Kenaan, Syria's interior minister and former intelligence chief in Lebanon, was reported to have committed suicide, shortly after giving his "last statement" to a Lebanese radio station.
Kenaan's death came only hours after apparently reading a carefully prepared statement on Voice of Lebanon radio station in which he said: "I think this is the last statement it is possible for me to give."
Kenaan committed "suicide by a shot in the mouth before noon," according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency.
His death came 10 days before the head of the UN team investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri, Detlev Mehlis, is due to hand in his report to UN chief Kofi Annan.
A Syrian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Kenaan shot himself in the mouth with a silencer-equipped gun. A colleague found him slumped at his desk, with a pool of blood on the ground, the official added. Kenaan was taken to Shami Hospital, but he was dead on arrival.
Syrian legislator Mohammad Habash said Kenaan was relaxed at a Cabinet session Tuesday night and did not appear tense.
"Everything seemed normal," Habash told Al-Arabiyya. "Certainly, the indications that came before it did not show he was under pressure here, or that his political situation was shaky."
Kenaan, who was Syria's strongman in Lebanon from 1982 to 2002, was among top Syrian officials to be questioned by Mehlis in connection with the Hariri murder.
U.S. President George W. Bush reserved judgment on the alleged suicide, citing the pending UN report and warning Syria to cooperate with the UN team.
During talks in Washington Bush said: "I don't want to prejudge the report that's coming out. I think it's very important for Syria to understand that the free world respects Lebanese democracy and expects Syria to honor that democracy."
He added: "It is one thing to have been asked to remove troops and all intelligence services (from Lebanon), now the world expects Syria to honor the democracy in the country of Lebanon."
The UN also declined to comment on Kenaan's death, with Annan's spokesman, Stephane Dujarric saying: "We have no comment on the death of the Syrian official. I can't speculate on why this person is now dead."
The Syrian government issued a statement mourning Kenaan 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 Mehdi Dakhlallah told Al-Jazeera pan-Arab television.
"Whatever happens, stability will not be shattered in Syria. We are one of the most stable countries in the region."
Asked if the suicide was linked to the UN report on Hariri's murder, Dakhlallah said: "Of course, the timing is sensitive. But I'm talking about facts and not suspicion and speculation."
Hours before he died, Kenaan, 63, contacted Voice of Lebanon, to which he rebuffed allegations by the Lebanese New TV (NTV) station during Tuesday's news bulletin concerning his interview with the UN team.
Following his death, an NTV source told The Daily Star the station was in fact trying to clear Kenaan's name by stressing he received large amounts of money, $10 million, from the late Hariri which implicated the two late officials were in fact friends.
However, Kenaan accused the NTV of instigating hatred.
"What are the motives of the station? Perhaps hatred or has it been fed with poison? I used to follow the station's news but it has lost credibility lately," he had said.
Kenaan conclude his self-defense with the words: "I think this is the last statement that it is possible for me to give," before urging the interviewer to pass his comments to other media.
By the end of the day, reactions from Lebanese officials and other concerned circles were lukewarm.
Lebanese Premier Fouad Siniora said: "I don't have information to disclose on his death. May God have mercy on his soul."
Other leading Lebanese politicians recalled how Kenaan controlled the country politically and economically as well as how he administered Lebanon's affairs down to the smallest detail.
In 2001, the Lebanese President Emile Lahoud had reportedly complained of Kenaan's excessive powers and called on the Syrian president to replace him and confine all Lebanese political ties with Syria to go through Baabda Presidential Palace.
What is clear is that he used this extraordinary last public statement as his final word for posterity, settling scores with enemies and affirming his complete innocence in the murder of Hariri.
Reports have recently emerged that Syria would broker a deal with France and the United States and would provide a scapegoat for Hariri's murder that would not rock the entire regime.
Dennis Ross, a former U.S. Middle East mediator, said if the U.N. report does point to some Syrian involvement, it likely would revolve around Kenaan because of his seniority and prominent position.
"I don't believe it was a suicide," Ross said of Kenaan's death. "The timing is extraordinarily coincidental. It certainly would look as if someone was trying to create the impression the person responsible for (the Hariri murder) is dead.
Adnan El Ghoul
The Daily Star