Middle East

Hariri murder: UN tribunal issues arrest warrants

Women pass by a giant portrait of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri near his grave, Beirut, Lebanon, 30 June 2011
Image caption Rafik Hariri is widely credited with getting Lebanon back on its feet after the 15-year civil war

Four arrest warrants have been issued by the UN-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 murder of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the court said.

Hariri's son, Saad, welcomed the indictments and described them as a "historic moment" for Lebanon.

Local reports say the warrants name senior members of the Shia militant and political group Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has repeatedly denounced the tribunal and vowed to retaliate.

Divisions over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), based in The Hague, have thrown the country into political turmoil and prompted fears of sectarian unrest.

'Innocent until proven guilty'

Rafik Hariri and 22 others were killed in February 2005 in central Beirut when a huge bomb went off as his motorcade passed by.

On Thursday, Lebanon's state prosecutor Saeed Mirza said he had received the indictments and four arrest warrants from an STL delegation in the Lebanese capital Beirut.

The STL later confirmed the indictment, stating that the judge "is satisfied that there is prima facie evidence for this case to proceed to trial".

It added that it would not reveal the identities of those named in the indictment.

"Judge Fransen has ruled that the indictment shall remain confidential in order to assist the Lebanese authorities in fulfilling their obligations to arrest the accused," the statement reads.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said his government would deal "responsibly and realistically" with the indictment, while "bearing in mind that these are accusations and not verdicts".

"All suspects are innocent until proven guilty," Mr Mikati told a news conference.

But the BBC's Owen Bennett-Jones in Beirut says the new prime minister is in a difficult position.

With Hezbollah now a strong force in the new Lebanese government, it is difficult to see how any arrests could be made, our correspondent says.

In a policy statement, the government said it would "follow the progress of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon... as long as it does not negatively affect Lebanon's stability and civil peace."

Thirty days

Officials from Hezbollah declined to comment, but the group's al-Manar television described the indictment as "politicised".

Hezbollah has denied always any role in the assassination. The group claims the tribunal is a plot involving the United States, Israel and France, and the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has threatened to cut the hand of anyone who tries to arrest Hezbollah members.

Saad Hariri - himself a former prime minister - described the indictment over his father's case as a milestone for the country.

"After many years of patience, of struggle... today, we witness a historic moment in Lebanese politics, justice and security," he said.

He urged Lebanon's new Hezbollah-dominated government to live up to its international obligations.

Hezbollah forced the collapse of Saad Hariri's government in January after he refused to stop co-operating with the tribunal.

Mr Mikati has previously said that he would strive to uphold Lebanon's international obligations, but that he was also mindful of his responsibilities when it came to the country's stability.

According to tribunal officials, Lebanon now has 30 days to serve out the arrest warrants.

If the suspects are not arrested within that period, the STL will then make public the indictment and summon the suspects to appear before the court.

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