Beirut: A UN-backed court investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri delivered four arrest warrants Thursday, the latest turn in a case that transformed this Arab nation and brought down the government earlier this year.
The names of the accused were not released, but the court has been expected to accuse members of Hezbollah — something the Iranian-backed militant group has insisted it will not accept. Many fear that tensions over the tribunal could lead to street protests and plunge the country into a new crisis.
Lebanese authorities now have 30 days to serve the indictments on suspects or execute arrest warrants. If they fail, the court can then order the indictment published and advertised in local media.
Hezbollah had no immediate comment.
The long-awaited indictment was confirmed by the office of Hariri`s son, Saad, six years after the massive truck bombing along Beirut`s waterfront on Feb. 14, 2005. Hariri was among 23 people killed.
"The Lebanese government should commit to full cooperation with the international court, and not run away from detaining the suspects and hand them over to justice which is the guarantee to democracy and stability," Saad Hariri`s office said.
Saad Hariri also served as Lebanon`s prime minister. But he was forced from office in January, when Hezbollah and its allies toppled his government in a conflict over the tribunal.
Hezbollah, which is also backed by Syria, fiercely denies any role in the killing and says the tribunal is a conspiracy by Israel and the United States.
The dispute over the court encapsulates Lebanon`s most explosive conflicts: the role of Hezbollah, the country`s most powerful political and military force; the country`s dark history of sectarian divisions and violence; and Lebanon`s fraught relationship with neighboring Syria.
The indictment raises concerns of a possible resurgence of violence that has bedeviled this tiny Arab country of 4 million people for years, including a devastating 1975-1990 civil war and sectarian battles between Sunnis and Shiites in 2008.
Rafik Hariri was one of Lebanon`s most prominent Sunni leaders.
Last year, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said the group "will cut off the hand" of anyone who tries to arrest any of its members. It was a potent threat, given that Nasrallah commands an arsenal that far outweighs that of the national army.
Reverberations from the death of Hariri, a billionaire businessman, are still being felt today.
In January, the investigation triggered a political crisis that brought down the Western-backed government of Saad Hariri, who had been prime minister since 2009. Saad Hariri had refused Hezbollah`s demands to renounce the court, prompting 11 Hezbollah ministers and their allies to resign from his unity government.
The move further polarized the country`s rival factions: Hezbollah with its patrons in Syria and Iran on one side, and Hariri`s Western-backed bloc on the other, with support by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
The US called Hezbollah`s walkout a transparent effort to subvert justice.
After Rafik Hariri was assassinated, suspicion immediately fell on Syria, since Hariri had been seeking to weaken its domination of the country.
Syria has denied having any role in the murder, but the killing galvanized opposition to Damascus and led to huge street demonstrations that helped end Syria`s 29-year military presence.
The tribunal, which is jointly funded by UN member states and Lebanon, filed a draft indictment in January but the contents were not revealed as Belgian judge Daniel Fransen decided whether there was enough evidence for a trial. The draft has been amended twice since then.
In the meantime, Lebanon formed a new government this month — after five months of political wrangling — that gives Hezbollah unprecedented political clout. But Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who was Hezbollah`s pick for the post, has insisted he will not do one side`s bidding.
According to Lebanon`s power-sharing system, the president must be a Christian Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni and the parliament speaker a Shiite. Each faith makes up about a third of Lebanon`s population of 4 million.
Saad Hariri has refused to take part in the government and is now a member of the opposition.