Lebanon seeks answers to mass grave findings

Damascus denies involvement
ANJAR, Lebanon (AP) — On a small hill overlooking this border town that was once a stark symbol of Syrian power in Lebanon, an excavator shovels soil as white-gloved Lebanese army forensic experts comb the earth hunting for grisly reminders of this country’s brutal past.

The exhumation and attempts to identify more than two dozen bodies buried near the one-time headquarters of Syria’s intelligence agents marks the latest setback in relations between Lebanon and its one-time power broker, Syria, whose troubled ties were torn apart by former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri’s February 14 assassination.

The remains of three badly decomposed bodies were found Sunday, raising the number of bodies exhumed in eastern Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley town of Anjar this weekend to 28, security officials said.

The bodies’ identities are unknown, but one security official said some may belong to Lebanese soldiers killed during a Syrian military offensive at the end of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.

The fact the bodies were exhumed, even though authorities are believed to have known about their presence for several years, is the latest sign Lebanon has been able to free itself from Syrian domination, which lasted for 29 years until the April withdrawal of thousands of troops after Hariri’s assassination.

“I have known about this mass grave since 1999, but who dared say anything back in those days?” said Anjar’s Mayor Shaaban Ajami, who recently told authorities of the mass grave. “I was repeatedly advised to keep my mouth shut.” Many Lebanese blamed Syria for Hariri’s assassination, a watershed in Lebanese-Syrian ties that provoked mass protests demanding the end to Syrian rule over this country. Elections soon followed, seeing Lebanese elect their first parliament in years without a pro-Syrian majority.

UN investigators implicated top Damascus officials in Hariri’s killing and accused Syria of obstructing their inquiry, adding international pressure against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. Syria denies any role in the killing and accuses the UN probe of being politically motivated.

During a grave site visit, Lebanese human rights activist Ghazi Aad blamed Syria for the deaths of those whose bodies were discovered and exhumed, including one wearing a Lebanese army uniform.

“This proves the criminal nature of this [Syrian] regime and its intelligence officers and what they did to the Lebanese people,” said Aad while standing near the once-feared Anjar base, which was notorious as a torture house for prisoners and a nerve centre from which Syria ran much of this country’s affairs.

But Syria declined any involvement in the mass grave, with a Syrian information ministry official saying the accusations were a “new pretext” to harm Damascus. The official declined to be identified as he was unauthorised to speak to the media.

In November, Assad hit back at the wave of anti-Syrian sentiment, describing Lebanon as “a passageway, a factory and bankroller of all the conspiracies” against Damascus and described Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora as a “slave” answering to his Lebanese and Western masters.

The Syrian leader’s biting words shocked many Lebanese.

“Lebanese have to realise that they must make their own decisions by themselves, and the Syrian brothers have to get used to Lebanon being an independent country,” Saniora said during a visit to Qatar late last month.

So, few were convinced last week when Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Sharaa embraced Saniora at a meeting in Barcelona and declared “a new page” in bilateral relations.

“Are we to believe that we have reached the end of an era of domineering relations?” asked a Daily Star newspaper editorial.

Tensions are expected to increase as the UN investigation continues with five Syrian officials to be questioned in Vienna this week. Both sides accuse each other of fabricating lies to mislead the probe.

“There can be no settlement whatsoever with this [Syrian] regime before the truth behind the assassination of martyr Rafiq Hariri is revealed,” said prominent Lebanese politician and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

Since Syria’s withdrawal, Saniora has sought diplomatic relations with Damascus, which has always insisted both countries are too close to each other for such ties. Some anti-Syrians here say Damascus has long harboured designs to swallow Lebanon up.

During the summer, Syria clamped a virtual land siege on Lebanon, leaving hundreds of trucks stranded at border crossings. Lebanon, meanwhile, complained of weapons’ smuggling from Syria and accused Syrian-backed Palestinian militants of seeking to destabilise this country. Many Lebanese blamed Syria for a string of bombings targeting politicians and journalists.

And the mass grave discoveries have already opened a new chapter in bitter recriminations.

Aad, director of Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile, called for an international investigation similar to that for the Kosovo mass graves discovered after Slobodan Milosevic’s ouster.

“These are people who died under torture. We want to know why they died, how they died and why they were thrown here,” said Aad, whose group works for the release of Lebanese prisoners in Syrian jails — around 176 — and learning the fate of 17,000 missing Lebanese.

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