Lebanon confirms Hariri aide tried to finger ex-general over assassination claims

Accusation that Jamil Sayyed demanded $15m to drop claims that PM had pressed witnesses to implicate Syria in killing of Rafik Hariri threaten government's stability

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BEIRUT // The Lebanese government yesterday confirmed that an aide to the prime minister had accused a former security official of demanding a payoff of US$15 million to drop his claims that the premier had pressed witnesses to implicate Syria and its Lebanese allies in the assassination in 2005 of Rafik Hariri.

The office of the prime minister, Saad Hariri, said in a statement that Mustafa Nasser had claimed this week that Jamil Sayyed, former director of Lebanon's general security division, had approached him about the possible payoff. Mr Sayyed and three other former security officials were arrested over the murder of Rafik Hariri and 22 others in a massive car bomb explosion in Beirut. The men, all military generals with close ties to Syria, spent four years in jail awaiting formal charges before being released in 2009. Mr Sayyed has claimed that Saad Hariri, son of Rafik, and his supporters pressed a series of later-discredited witnesses to finger Syria and its Lebanese allies for the murder. In a startling admission this month, Mr Hariri said he was hasty in blaming the Syrian regime for his father's death. He has denied Mr Sayyed's accusations, however.

Last week, Mr Sayyed gave a series of press conferences that threatened Mr Hariri's government, saying that if he "doesn't get justice from the courts, then he'll get it from the streets" and calling Mr Hariri a common thug. The comments drew a summons from prosecutors to explain his actions. Mr Sayyed, with the military support of Hizbollah, has refused to answer the summons despite threats of arrest and has denied several times that he sought payment from Mr Hariri.

The situation has shattered the year-old unity government led by Mr Hariri that includes several members of Hizbollah and its allies, once again pitting the Shiite group against Mr Hariri's predominately Sunni supporters in a struggle that threatens to spill onto the streets. The Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a one-time ally of Mr Hariri, who is now neutral, warned in a local media interview that the situation was close to out of control.

"We have reached a regrettable situation. Truly it is a strange situation; and the country is witnessing systematic deterioration with the political rhetoric that will have an impact on security, politics and lives of the people and their morale," Mr Jumblatt said in the interview. "Many are asking whether they should stay or leave" the country, he added. @Email:mprothero@thenational.ae