Former Syrian Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam, a one-time stalwart of the ruling Baath Party, on Friday accused Syria's President Bashar Assad of being personally involved in the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri.
Khaddam made the claim as he declared a formal break with President Bashar Assad in a television interview from Paris, citing corruption within the regime and its failure to reform.
He quoted the Syrian president as telling Hariri, months before he was killed: "You want to bring a (new) president in Lebanon. ... I will not allow that. I will crush whoever attempts to overturn our decision."
"No Syrian security service can reach a decision independently, besides the president. Bashar told me that people in Syria were involved [in the assassination] and that means that he was involved," Khaddam said in the interview with Al-Arabiya, the pan-Arab satellite broadcaster, his first since he left Syria several months ago.
Khaddam said that Syria knew that Hariri was working against Syria in Lebanon, which enraged President Assad.
"Hariri was subjected to many threats from Syria. ... Dangerous things were said. Once he was summoned to Damascus ... and spoken to in extremely harsh words by President Bashar Assad," he said.
Former Mossad chief and Labor MK Dan Yatom said Saturday that Khaddam's statements gave a tremendous push to the collapse of the Alawi regime in Syria.
Hariri was assassinated on February 14 in a massive truck bombing that killed 20 others on a Beirut street.
A UN probe into Hariri's killing has implicated Syria, but Damascus has denied the allegations.
Khaddam became a Syrian vice president in 1984.He was the nominal leader in Syria for a short period after Assad's father, Hafez Assad, died in June 2000.
In the interview, Khaddam was bitterly critical of the current Assad government, saying the ruling Baath Party and other popular organizations had been reduced to vindicating "decisions made by the president."
He claimed to have left his homeland on good terms with Assad. "There are differences in opinions, but there was mutual respect," he said, adding that his family was with him in Paris where he was writing a memoir.
Nevertheless, he charged, the Syrian leadership had made many mistakes.
Syria had dictated an extension of the presidential term of pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, which Hariri opposed. The move provoked a political crisis in Syria's tiny Mediterranean neighbor.
After the warning from Assad, Hariri left with "high blood pressure and his nose bleeding," Khaddam said.
Khaddam's comments reflected serious cracks within the Damascus regime. His claim was in direct contradiction to those of Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, who claimed at a Wednesday news conference that Hariri lied when he told Lebanese politicians he had been threatened by Assad during a meeting on Aug. 26, 2004.
Several anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians told the UN commission they had been told Assad threatened to "break Lebanon" over Hariri's head if he did not support Damascus' decision to extend the Lahoud presidency.
Khaddam also launched a scathing attack against Syria's intelligence chief in Lebanon, Brig. Gen. Rustom Ghazale, as a corrupt officer who insulted Lebanese politicians, including Hariri, on a number of occasions.
Khaddam said Ghazale had urged Assad to bring Hariri to Damascus and "chop off his head because he had created this situation in Lebanon."
Ghazale is one of several Syrian security officials interrogated by UN investigators.
Khaddam was been a member of the Baath Party's regional command for almost 30 years. During the Lebanese civil war, he was Syria's top official for the country, frequently visiting Beirut and becoming deeply involved in the day to day politics of the country.
He gradually handed over his Lebanese responsibilities during the late 1990s, but remained a close friend of Hariri and was the only Syrian official to attend his funeral.
Under intense international pressure and after massive anti-Syrian demonstrations in Damascus, Syria pulled its troops out of Syria this summer after entering the country in 1976 as a stabilizing force early in the country's civil war.
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