The Security Council quickly approved a request from Lebanon's prime minister for UN investigators already probing last year's assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to assist the government's investigation of the latest assassination of an anti-Syrian Cabinet minister.
The council acted just hours after Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent a letter on Wednesday informing members that Prime Minister Fuad Saniora wanted "technical assistance" from the UN in his government's investigation of Tuesday's killing of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel.
"We have decided to respond swiftly," Peru's UN Ambassador Jorge Voto-Bernales, the current council president, told reporters minutes after signing a letter to Annan approving the assistance. "There was no discussion on this issue. Actually all members agreed on this very quickly."
Argentina's UN Ambassador Cesar Mayoral said if the letter was sent on Wednesday "the investigation could start on Thursday." US Ambassador John Bolton strongly backed Saniora's request and said earlier on Wednesday that "it would be prudent" for the council to act "as rapidly as possible while the crime scene evidence is still fresh and before obstruction of justice can take place."
After the council's decision to approve the letter, senior US diplomat William Brencick said, "We're very pleased that the council acted swiftly to send the letter approving the request of the Lebanese government."
Annan said in his letter to the council that Saniora wanted help from the International Independent Investigation Commission led by Belgian judge Serge Brammertz. Since it reports to the Security Council, he said, council members should "take appropriate action."
In its letter of reply to the secretary-general, the council said it was "determined to support the government of Lebanon in its efforts to bring to justice the perpetrators, organisers, and sponsors of the assassination of Pierre Gemayel and other assassinations."
The council referred to several past resolutions including one adopted in June that extended the Brammertz commission's mandate for a year and supported UN technical assistance to the Lebanese government in other terrorist attacks as the UN commission "deems appropriate."
With the Security Council's green light, it is now up to the Lebanese government to give final approval to the establishment of the tribunal, which would be located outside Lebanon and have a majority of international judges and an international prosecutor.
The February 2005 truck bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others sparked huge protests against Syria, which was widely seen as culpable. Syria denied involvement, but was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, ending a 29-year presence.
Syria also denied involvement in Gemayel's assassination and condemned it, but Syria's opponents in Lebanon and allies of Gemayel pointed the finger at Damascus. Some accused Syria of trying to block the establishment of the tribunal.
Lebanon's Council of Ministers, led by Saniora who is anti-Syrian, approved the tribunal plan on November 13 but pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud has challenged the ministers' decision. Saniora's government has also come under intense pressure from Hezbollah, which has close ties with Syria and Iran and gained strength from this summer's war against Israel, to give them more power or face street protests.