The chief U.N. investigator went to Syria to question officials about the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a probe that could undermine the government of the tightly controlled country.
The step takes the inquiry directly to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Investigator Detlev Mehlis has already accused four top Lebanese security officials who implemented Syrian policy in Lebanon in the Feb. 14 bomb blast that killed Hariri.
So far, Mehlis is only questioning Syrian officials as witnesses and has not made any accusations. Damascus has repeatedly denied any role in the assassination, which prompted a wave of anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon and helped end Syria's long domination of the country.
Mehlis, a German prosecutor heading a U.N. investigation team, was driven from Beirut to the Syrian capital in a heavily guarded motorcade that included two decoy convoys, Lebanon's official National News Agency said. Journalists saw the convoys at the Masnaa crossing on the Lebanese-Syrian border.
Mehlis has not revealed who he wants to interview in Syria, but Lebanese newspapers have reported that they include Syria's last intelligence chief in Lebanon, Brig. Gen. Rustum Ghazale, two of Ghazale's aides, and Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan, who was Syria's intelligence chief for Lebanon until 2000.
The questioning comes as Syria is facing increasing international pressure on several fronts. The world has been pressing it to cooperate with the Hariri inquiry, and Mehlis last month accused Syria of preventing him from interviewing its officials. Soon after, Damascus invited him to visit and arrange the interviews.
Last week, the U.S. State Department called Syria a "destabilizing element" in the Middle East, and President George W. Bush spoke of rallying other nations against Syria, saying it could do much more to stop fighters from crossing into Iraq to join the insurgency.
According to Syrian political activists the United Nations' interrogation of top officials could shake the government if evidence of Syrian involvement in Hariri's killing emerges, the AP reports.
The Ilyushin 20 (Il-20) military electronic reconnaissance aircraft of the Russian Air Force with 14 servicemen on board that went off radar screens off the coast of Syria was shot down by Syrian air defense systems over the Mediterranean Sea