Lebanon in crisis as indictment filed for Hariri murder

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The prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon filed his indictment Monday for the 2005 murder of premier Rafiq Hariri as Beirut's neighbours backed renewed mediation to calm rising tensions.

Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare submitted his long-awaited indictment under wraps, but speculation was rife that it named the Hezbollah militant group in connection with the massive car bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others on the Beirut seafront on Valentine's day six years ago.

"The prosecutor of the tribunal has submitted an indictment and supporting materials to the pre-trial judge," the UN-backed tribunal (STL) said in a statement from Leidschendam, near The Hague, where it is based for security reasons.

"The contents of the indictment remain confidential at this stage".

In expectation of being named, Hezbollah warned on Sunday it would "defend" itself and branded the tribunal a tool of the United States and Israel.

"We will not allow our reputation and our dignity to be tarnished nor will we allow anyone to conspire against us or to unjustly drench us in Hariri's blood," Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said a televised speech.

The Shiite militant group which enjoys the backing of Iran and Syria, withdrew from the Lebanese cabinet with its allies last Wednesday, citing the UN-backed probe and prompting the collapse of the unity government led by Western-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the murdered premier.

Lebanon's president on Monday postponed talks on naming a new Lebanese prime minister as regional leaders threw their weight behind a Syrian-Saudi bid to defuse the crisis.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met in Damascus on Monday for talks on the deadlock.

The three leaders "expressed their commitment to a solution to the Lebanese crisis based on Syrian-Saudi good offices so as to achieve understanding between the Lebanese and avoid a deterioration of the situation," the Syrian SANA news agency reported after the meeting.

Iran's acting Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was also to hold talks on the crisis with Erdogan in Turkey later on Monday.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon, on a visit to Abu Dhabi, called for calm in Lebanon and made an appeal for the work of the tribunal not to be politicised.

"The independent judicial process should not be linked to any political debate" he said.

The STL was created at Lebanon's request by a 2007 UN Security Council resolution to find and try Hariri's killers.

According to its rules of procedure, the indictment will be reviewed by pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen, who must confirm the charges before any arrest warrant or summons to appear can be issued.

Fransen should need six to 10 weeks to confirm the charges, after which a trial could start within four to six months.

The pre-trial judge could also decide to reject the indictment in whole or in part, or ask the prosecutor for additional information.

The STL's rules allows for a trial to be held without the accused being present, if arrests are impossible.

Bellemare's office, meanwhile, said he would elaborate on the "significance" of the indictment in a videotaped statement to be released on Tuesday.

"The indictment marks the beginning of the judicial phase of the tribunal's work," it said.

"The prosecutor and his team will continue to vigorously pursue his mandate with respect to both continued investigative activity and the prosecution of this case."

Hezbollah, "Party of God" in Arabic, has warned it would "cut off the hand" of anyone who tries to arrest any of its members for the Hariri killing, raising fears of renewed Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence, 20 years after the end of a 15-year civil war.

The tribunal opened its doors in The Hague in 2009, four years after Hariri's murder triggered a political crisis that caused the withdrawal of Syrian troops after a 29-year presence in Lebanon.

Damascus has consistently denied involvement in the killing.


© 2011 AFP

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