Syria's interior minister, one of several top officials questioned by U.N. investigators on the slaying of Lebanon's former prime minister, died Wednesday. The country's official news agency said he had committed suicide.
The death of Ghazi Kenaan just days before the final U.N. report is due — was a new and startling sign of turmoil in Syria, where the authoritarian regime is girding for the chance the United Nations might implicate high-ranking officials in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minster Rafik Hariri.
"Interior Minister Brig. Gen. Ghazi Kenaan committed suicide in his office before noon," the Syrian Arab News Agency reported.
Information Minister Mahdi Dakhlallah told Al-Arabiya TV the death would not affect political stability in Syria.
Calling it a "painful incident," the minister told reporters that Kenaan's death was under investigation.
In Lebanon, where TV stations broke into regular programming to announce the news, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said he had no details about the death of Kenaan, who effectively controlled Lebanon as Syria's intelligence chief there for about 20 years. "May God have mercy on him," Saniora said.
A prominent Lebanese legislator and journalist, Gebran Tueni, cast doubt on the suicide report.
"It is not known for sure if he committed suicide, or was made to commit suicide," Tueni told Al-Arabiya TV from Paris. "In Syria, there are some people who want to hide the facts, and don't want everything about the Syrian period in Lebanon to be known."
And a Syrian opposition figure, Ali Sadrelddine al-Beyanouni, the London-exiled leader of the banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood group, told Al-Jazeera that a Kenaan statement to a radio station shortly before his death "indicated that he felt in danger, and this supports rumors that there has been a deal in which the Syrian regime might sacrifice some of its heads for saving the regime."
The Syrian news agency did not mention the U.N. investigation, which is due to issue its report by Oct. 25.
Hours before he died, Kenaan, 63, contacted a Lebanese radio station and gave it a statement, concluding with the words: "I believe this is the last statement that I can make." Kenaan told the station he was questioned by the U.N. investigators but denied a report that he had told them about corrupt Syrian officials.
The interior minister in Syria controls the police. But before he was promoted to minister in 2003, Kenaan was Syria's intelligence chief in Lebanon, a position that conferred enormous power. Syrian intelligence controlled the hiring and firing of Lebanese officials and every aspect of political and military life.
Several other Syrian officials have also recently publicly denied that they cooperated with the U.N. investigation, in an apparent sign of infighting and confusion within the regime.
President Bashar Assad said in an interview earlier Wednesday with CNN, before Kenaan's death was announced, that if the U.N. murder probe had any material proof of Syrian involvement, which he discounted, those involved would be charged with treason and could be handed over to an international court.
Lebanese newspapers have reported that besides Kenaan, six other senior Syrian officials were questioned last month by the United Nations. They included Syria's last intelligence chief in Lebanon, Brig. Gen. Rustum Ghazale and his two aides.
The investigators have named as suspects four Lebanese generals who are close to Syria, and Lebanon has arrested them.
The Syrian government has denied any involvement, but Syria dominated Lebanon until mass demonstrations and international pressure forced it to withdraw its troops from Lebanon at the end of April.
In June, the U.S. government moved to block the financial assets of Kenaan and another Syrian general. The step indicated that Washington was turning up the heat on Syria, with which it is at loggerheads over Iraq and Lebanon.
Many Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have been quietly pressing President Assad to turn over any officials who may be implicated in the U.N. report.
Analysts say the Syrian government is quietly preparing for the U.N. report by consolidating its power, readying a diplomatic counteroffensive, and taking steps to guard against any sanctions.
Visitors who have seen Assad recently report he is relaxed and confident the United Nations will not find any criminal evidence that his country was involved in the Feb. 14 bombing that killed Hariri and 20 others in Beirut.
But his government is reportedly planning a diplomatic offensive to discredit any incriminating report. Syria would appeal to China, India and Russia to help block a U.N. resolution and possible sanctions. Damascus would also ask U.S. allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia to intercede with Washington.
If the U.N. report implicates Syria, some analysts believe Assad would turn over officers who served in Lebanon if there is irrefutable evidence of their involvement. But most believe he would never hand over family members, some of whom occupy powerful positions in government.
"The family is a red line," said Joshua Landis, a University of Oklahoma professor who is spending the year in Damascus as a Fulbright scholar.
Kenaan was born in Latakia, Syria's main Mediterranean port. He is survived by a wife, four sons and two daughters.