By Nadim Ladki  BEIRUT (Reuters) – A U.N. team began an inquiry in Beirut on Friday into former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri’s assassination, which the Lebanese opposition blamed on Syria.  Syrian troops in Mount Lebanon and northern parts of the country stayed put, a day after Damascus announced it was planning to pull back its troops toward the border in line with the Taif Accord that ended Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war. The U.N. Security Council, angered by the Feb. 14 bombing that killed Hariri and 17 others, had asked Secretary-General Kofi Annan  to report urgently on “the circumstances, causes and consequences of the assassination.”

Lebanon’s Syrian-backed government has rejected calls for an international investigation committee into the killing but has pledged to cooperate with the U.N. mission.

The head of the three-member U.N. team, Irish Deputy Police Commissioner Peter Fitzgerald, told reporters in Beirut he promised “absolute impartiality and professionalism.”

“I look forward to working closely with the Lebanese authorities, and to learning about their progress in investigating this terrible crime,” he said. “We will also seek to speak to others who might assist us to fulfil our mandate.”

Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh said after meeting the U.N. team that Lebanon would do all it could to help them.

“We will brief them fully on our investigations… We will not keep anything from them,” Franjieh said.

The Lebanese authorities, which have released few details, have launched their own investigation and sought Swiss expertise in DNA testing and explosives.

Lebanon’s opposition figures blame Syria and its allies in Lebanon for the killing of Hariri, a billionaire businessman who enjoyed strong ties to several world leaders.

The killing intensified pressure on Syria to end its dominating role in Lebanon.

The move to shift forces to the strategic Bekaa Valley, which Lebanese officials said excluded the feared intelligence service, falls short of U.S. and French demands — as well as a Security Council resolution — for a total withdrawal.


Washington said redeployment, which the Lebanese defense minister said would happen in next few days, was too little.

“As we’ve said before, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 calls in clear, unequivocal terms for all foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon,” a State Department spokesman said on Thursday.

“Redeploying troops to the Bekaa, in accordance with Taif … does not comply with 1559 or the will of the international community as reflected in that resolution.”

Annan urged Syria on Thursday to withdraw by April, when he is due to report on the issue to the Security Council.


“I would urge them to do everything possible to comply so that I can report to the Council that they have satisfactorily performed and therefore we wouldn’t need to go for additional measures,” he told Al Arabiya satellite television.

The chief U.N. spokesman later stressed Annan had not been setting a deadline. “The secretary-general never set an April deadline for a withdrawal, nor did he support sanctions if the pull-out did not happen by then,” Fred Eckhard said.

President Bush (newsweb sites) said on Wednesday he would await Syria’s response to the pressure before seeking possible U.N. sanctions.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview published on Friday he wanted dialogue with the United States though Bush’s policy in the Middle East lacked vision.

“Talks on security issues must not be broken. The only way to do this is through direct dialogue. We are seeking this but cannot find the same attitude in some U.S. circles,” Assad told Turkey’s top-selling Hurriyet daily.

“We see the United States as a superpower which can prevent chaos in the world. But this role requires a general vision. Unfortunately at the moment this vision is lacking. This lack of a vision causes us and the world to worry,” he said.