Tensions are high in Lebanon following the issuing of arrest warrants by the United Nations-backed special tribunal for the country in the case of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination. There are fears that the indictments could trigger another bloody crisis in the country, which has been plagued by sectarian conflict.
The tribunal, based in the Dutch city of The Hague, handed over warrants against four suspects to a Beirut judge on Thursday. Daniel Fransen, a judge at the special tribunal, said in a statement that the details of charges and the names of the alleged killers should remain secret for now, in order not to make the arrests more difficult.
The four suspects are believed to all be members of the militant Shiite movement Hezbollah. Lebanese media and the Associated Press reported that the men charged are Mustafa Badreddine, the former Hezbollah deputy military commander who is believed to have supervised the Hariri assassination, another senior official, Salim Ayyash, who holds US citizenship, and two lower-ranking Hezbollah members, Assad Sabra and Hassan Anise.
Suspects 'May Have Fled to Iran'
According to unconfirmed information from legal sources in Beirut, the indictments accuse the four men of being responsible for the bomb attack in the Lebanese capital Beirut on Feb. 14, 2005 which killed Rafik Hariri and 22 others. Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria, strongly denies any involvement in the assassination and has accused the special tribunal of being part of a conspiracy between Israel and the United States.
There were also unconfirmed reports that the special tribunal had identified other possible suspects in addition to the four men named, including individuals of Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian nationality. An unidentified Lebanese security official told the German news agency DPA that most of the suspects were no longer in Lebanon and "may have fled to Iran after the murder."
Lebanese authorities now have 30 days to serve the arrest warrants. If the suspects are not arrested within that period, the tribunal will make the indictments public and order the suspects to appear in The Hague.
Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri, described the issuing of the arrest warrants as an "historic moment," and said he hoped it would be "a turning point in the history of fighting organized political crime in Lebanon and the Arab world." Saad Hariri was prime minister of Lebanon from November 2009 until January of this year, when Hezbollah and its allies toppled his government after Hariri refused to bow to the Shiite movement's demands to stop cooperating with the special tribunal.
Rise of Hezbollah
Following months of political wrangling, Lebanon recently formed a new government that makes Hezbollah into a strong political force. It is unclear if Lebanese authorities will manage to enforce the warrants, given that Hezbollah and its allies have enough seats in the new parliament to potentially block legal proceedings.
The tribunal's implication that Hezbollah was behind the assassination threatens to spark renewed sectarian tension between Sunnis and Shiites. On Thursday, Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who was picked by Hezbollah, tried to calm tensions, saying that "the indictments are not verdicts" and calling on the country's various political factions to put Lebanon's interests first.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah will give a televised address on Saturday night in which he is expected to express his opposition to the indictment. Nasrallah has said in the past that his group "will cut off the hand" of anyone who tries to arrest any of its members.