U.S. steps up attack on Syria over 'hit list'
White House accuses Damascus of creating climate of fear during Lebanon's parliamentary elections
BEIRUT: President George W. Bush stepped up his attacks on Syria last night, after a U.S. official said Damascus had compiled an "assassination hit list" targeting Lebanese political leaders. The accusation comes a week after the assassination of anti-Syrian Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir which has fueled speculation that Syrian intelligence units are still operating in Lebanon."
Bush said: "Our message to Syria - and it's not just the message of the United States, the United Nations has said the same thing - is that in order for Lebanon to be free, Syria needs to not only remove its military, but to remove intelligence officers as well."
Commenting on the assassination list, Bush said: "Obviously we're going to follow up on these troubling reports, and we expect the Syrian government to follow up on these troubling reports
The anonymous U.S. official said the information came from "a variety of credible Lebanese sources."
In the latest escalation of tensions between Damascus and Washington, the White House accused Syria of creating a climate of fear during Lebanon's parliamentary elections in what will be seen as a scarcely veiled allusion to the murder of Kassir.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: "We are deeply concerned about Syria's interference and intimidation inside Lebanon."
He added: "We are concerned intelligence operatives are interfering in Lebanon's internal affairs. We have all called on the UN to send the verification teams back to Lebanon."
Washington's attack follows earlier comments from UN chief Kofi Annan who said on Thursday night that he was considering sending a second verification team to Lebanon because of reports that Syrian intelligence is still operating in the country.
Damascus has strenuously denied any involvement in the Kassir murder, and insists it has fully complied with UN Resolution 1559 which ordered Syria to withdraw its troops and intelligence agencies from its smaller neighbor.
The new accusations against Syria came as Lebanon prepares to hold its third phase of four-stage parliamentary elections on Sunday, in Mount Lebanon, and the Bekaa districts.
Jumblatt accused the former Syrian military intelligence chief in Lebanon, General Rustom Ghazaleh, of meddling in the election through his agents.