BEIRUT, (Reuters) – A U.N.-backed tribunal seeking the killers of statesman Rafik al-Hariri handed indictments and arrest warrants to Lebanon yesterday that officials said accused members of the militant Hezbollah group of involvement.
The long-awaited move was hailed as a “historic moment” by Hariri’s son, opposition leader Saad al-Hariri, but poses an immediate challenge to the new government of Najib Mikati whose cabinet is dominated by Hezbollah allies.
Prosecutor Saeed Mirza gave no details of the indictments. Lebanese officials said four warrants were issued for Hezbollah members including senior leader Mustafa Badreddine, who was jailed in Kuwait over a series of bombings in 1983 and is a brother-in-law of slain Hezbollah commander Imad Moughniyeh.
The assassination on Feb. 14, 2005 plunged Lebanon into a series of political crises, killings and bombings which led to sectarian clashes in May 2008, dragging the country back to the brink of civil war.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on nations to support the tribunal, a hybrid international and Lebanese court established under Chapter Seven of the U.N. charter, granting the U.N. wide powers to address violations.
But a Hezbollah television station said the indictments showed that the tribunal was politicised.
Analysts said Mikati, whose government has yet to win a confidence vote in parliament, now faces irreconcilable demands from Hariri’s domestic and international allies — who want Lebanon to comply with the court — and the majority of his cabinet who reject any cooperation with it.
Lebanese analyst Oussama Safa said that refusal to comply would lead to Lebanon’s isolation. “Now the government of Mikati has to decide what it is going to do. If it does not cooperate it risks putting Lebanon in trouble,” he said.
The United States welcomed the delivery of the indictments, saying it marked “an important step towards justice and ending impunity for political assassinations in Lebanon”.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Lebanon’s government should now hand them over to the special prosecutor.
“We’re looking for it to take action,” he said.
The other three suspects were named by Lebanese officials as Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Issa and Assad Sabra. It was not clear how many belonged to Hezbollah or what positions they held.
Hezbollah, both a Shi’ite Muslim political movement and guerrilla army, denies any role in the huge explosion on the Beirut seafront which killed Hariri and 22 others.
There have been fears in Lebanon that indictments of Hezbollah members over the assassination of the prominent Sunni Muslim leader, who was prime minister for several terms between 1992 and 2004, could raise sectarian tensions between factions still struggling with the legacy of its 1975-90 civil war.
Mikati urged Lebanese to be “reasonable and far-sighted” to ensure that “those who want to target the country and push us towards strife miss their chance”.