Syria shocked by official’s death

DAMASCUS, Syria – Syria’s interior minister, who effectively controlled Lebanon for two decades, was found dead in his office Wednesday, days before the release of a U.N. report that could implicate high-ranking officials in the murder of Lebanon’s former prime minister.

The Syrian government called the death of Brig. Gen. Ghazi Kenaan a suicide, but opponents claimed it could be a murder to cover up top-level involvement.

The news of Kenaan’s death shocked Syrians, and the government felt compelled to stress it would not affect the country’s political stability.

Kenaan, who was Syria’s intelligence chief in Beirut for 20 years, was one of at least seven Syrians recently questioned by a U.N. team investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Kenaan was a “central figure in Syria’s occupation of Lebanon for many years,” but that it was up to Syrian authorities to assess the circumstances of his death.

President Bush, asked about the upcoming U.N. report, said he did not wish to prejudge it. But he added it was “important for Syria to understand the free world respects Lebanese democracy, and expects Syria to honor that democracy.”

The government has been quietly preparing for the U.N. report by consolidating power, readying a diplomatic counteroffensive and taking steps to guard against any sanctions.

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