Robert Fisk: The Ghazi Kenaan I knew was not the sort of man who would commit suicide

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The Independent Online

The smile broke. Brigadier-General Ghazi Kenaan, with his boxer's face and small, tight fists, really did think it funny back in 1987 that the Archbishop of Canterbury's envoy had been abducted as he tried to secure the release of Westerners held in Lebanon. Irony was what he dealt in. And brutality. In the basement of the Beau Rivage Hotel, which he made his headquarters as head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, were cells and electric leads and other, more obviously brutal men.

He had power and he used it. When Hizbollah fighters attacked a company of Syrian troops in Beirut, he sent his men to storm one of their social halls and shot every one inside, including at least two Lebanese women. Their corpses were heaped on a Syrian army truck and driven slowly through the streets of the Beirut suburb of Basta for the population to see. You didn't mess with Ghazi Kenaan.

And he didn't seem to be the sort of man to commit suicide, which is what the Syrians claimed he had done yesterday. The Syrian news agency said Kenaan, now the Minister of Interior, killed himself in his Damascus office at 11am, hours after he had been questioned by a Beirut radio station about the 14 February murder of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

Major-General Kenaan - as he now was - was questioned three weeks ago by the UN commission investigating the bombing of Hariri's motorcade. Four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals who worked closely with Kenaan during his rule in Lebanon have been arrested by UN investigators.

"I think this is the last statement I might give," he presciently told the Voice of Lebanon radio station three hours before his death. "My testimony [to the UN] ... was to shed light on an era during which we have served Lebanon ... I want to make clear that our relations with our brothers in Lebanon was based on love and mutual respect ... We have served Lebanon with honour and honesty."

The Lebanese may disagree. Before he left Beirut for Damascus, Kenaan was reported to have been involved in a vast housing corruption scandal - Syrian mukhabarat intelligence officers became rich in Lebanon - and initial reports, before he was appointed Interior Minister, suggested he was in disgrace. Certainly, there will be many Lebanese and Syrians waiting to discover if his successor as intelligence commander, General Rustum Ghazali, will also suddenly be found to have committed suicide. Ghazali was in charge of the Syrian intelligence apparatus when Hariri was killed.

So did Kenaan really kill himself, or did the Baath party's intelligence apparatus decide he was too dangerous to be left alive? The Kenaan I knew never appeared suicidal. When kidnappers ruled the streets of Beirut, hunting for the only westerners left in the city, Kenaan even offered to take me jogging with him - from the Beau Rivage Hotel to the Bain Militaire in west Beirut - so would-be abductors would see me with him and would not dare to harm the "friend" of so powerful a Syrian agent. Kenaan went jogging every morning in civil-war Beirut, on his own. Because he was too dangerous to cross.

I once asked him if he had direct contact with then President Hafez Assad. "Of course," he said. How? "On this telephone behind me." And how often, I asked, did he call President Assad. Kenaan smiled broadly. "It's a one-way phone system. He can call me; I can't call him!" So another era ends, but in the most sensational manner. That a man of such power should take his life shows either his sense of guilt over Hariri's death, or the Baath party's fear of the UN inquiry, due to report on 21 October. Detlev Mehlis, the German chief investigator, questioned Kenaan at a hotel inside the Syrian border and for three weeks there have been rumours that the Syrian Interior Minister would be fingered for the crime. So do we expect more arrests? Or more mysterious suicides in the Syrian halls of power?