Lebanon braces for Hezbollah backlash

2011-07-01 14:01

Beirut - Lebanon braced on Friday for a possible backlash after a UN-backed tribunal issued an indictment in the 2005 murder of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri in which four Hezbollah members are named.

Interior Minister Marwan Charbel confirmed the names of the men charged by the Netherlands-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) and said efforts would begin to arrest them.

He said Lebanon's Prosecutor General Said Mirza had given him the arrest warrants early on Friday for Mustafa Badreddine, Salim Ayyash, Assad Sabra and Hussein Anaissi.

Their whereabouts are unknown.

Badreddine is the brother-in-law of top Hezbollah operative Imad Mughniyeh, who died in a 2008 bombing in Damascus.

He is suspected of having masterminded the February 14 2005 seaside bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others.

Search for suspects

Ayyash, another senior party official who holds US citizenship, allegedly carried out the attack.

Sabra and Anaissi allegedly co-ordinated with Ahmad Abu Adas, a Palestinian who contacted Al-Jazeera television following the Hariri assassination to claim responsibility for the bombing.

Charbel said a meeting among all concerned security services was planned on Saturday to co-ordinate search operations for the suspects.

"We have to address this issue calmly and wisely to preserve the civil peace," he said. "If the situation explodes, everyone loses."

He also pointed out that there are between 15 000 and 20 000 outstanding arrest warrants in Lebanon.

Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shi'ite militant party, is set to make a televised address on Saturday that will mark his first reaction to the indictment that has triggered fears of sectarian unrest in the volatile country.

Saad Hariri hails move

Hezbollah, blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Washington, has repeatedly warned that it would not sit idle should any of its militants be accused of Hariri's assassination.

All eyes today are on how Prime Minister Najib Mikati's new government, dominated by Hezbollah and its allies, will respond to the indictment and whether it will continue co-operating with the tribunal.

Hariri's son and political heir, former prime minister Saad Hariri, has hailed the indictment as a "historic" moment for Lebanon, while his ally the United States said the move was "an important step towards justice and ending impunity for political assassinations in Lebanon".

The Iranian- and Syrian-backed party Hezbollah, the most powerful political and military force in Lebanon, engineered the collapse of Saad Hariri's Western-backed unity government in January after he refused to end co-operation with the tribunal.

Mikati, his successor, was appointed with the blessing of Hezbollah.

In an ambiguously worded policy statement on Thursday, he said Lebanon would respect international resolutions as long as they did not threaten the civil peace.

Making judicial history

The opposition "March 14" coalition headed by Saad Hariri said this was a clear sign Mikati's government would not abide by its international obligations.

Lebanon has 30 days to serve out the STL arrest warrants. If the suspects are not arrested within that period, the tribunal can then publicly call on them to surrender.

The STL, set up in The Hague in 2009 by the United Nations, is the first international court with jurisdiction to try an act of terrorism.

The Hariri murder sparked a wave of massive protests in Lebanon which, combined with international pressure, forced Syria to withdraw its troops from the country after a 29-year deployment.

Syria was widely suspected of having a hand in Hariri's murder but has denied involvement.