Beirut tense but calm after U.N. prosecutor files indictment

The Islamic militant group Hezbollah and its allies resigned from the Lebanese Cabinet and topple the government on Wednesday. (Jan. 12)
Locator map of Beirut, Lebanon
Mary Kate Cannistra/The Washington Post
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 18, 2011; 9:42 AM

BEIRUT - Tensions were high in the Lebanese capital on Tuesday, a day after the prosecutor for the United Nations submitted a sealed indictment against suspects in the 2005 assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister.

The indictment concludes an investigation that has cast suspicion on top Syrian leaders and Hezbollah militants and contributed to the collapse this month of Lebanon's pro-Western government.

Apparent Hezbollah supporters gathered in the streets briefly early Tuesday morning as scared parents pulled their children from school, prompting many schools to close.

But by 8 a.m., the streets were calm. Lebanon's education minister reassured parents that the streets were safe and urged them to return their children to school. People traded bits of rumor and information, and wondered about what was to come.

The Qatari prime minister and the Turkish foreign minister were expected in Lebanon on Tuesday, with Turkey, a growing regional power, taking the lead in organizing a regional meeting to help solve the crisis. Parliamentarians are consulting with President Michel Suleiman on whom to nominate as prime minister.

Hezbollah wants the government to renounce the tribunal, while caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the slain leader's son, has refused. Without compromise, it will take weeks, if not months, to form a government.

Daniel Bellemare, the U.N. tribunal's Canadian prosecutor, filed the indictment under seal late Monday before the court's pretrial judge, Daniel Fransen. It could be several weeks before the identities of the suspects are known and about a year before a trial would be held.

The case has roiled Lebanese politics, with anticipation that the prosecutor would name members of Hezbollah in connection with the bombing attack that killed the former prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, and 22 others.

"Any speculation about the contents of the indictment would be counterproductive," Bellemare said in a videotaped statement released Tuesday. "Confidentiality is essential as I cannot presume that the pretrial judge will confirm the indictment. If it is confirmed, the content of the document will be made public in due course."

"Even if the indictment is confirmed by the pretrial judge, the person or persons whose identity is contained in the document are still presumed innocent."

Hezbollah, the Shiite armed movement that is the most powerful military force in the nation, has staunchly denied any involvement in Hariri's death and calls the tribunal an American and Israeli plot. The movement's television channel accused the United States of rushing the indictments to deepen the political crisis in Lebanon. Hasan Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah, has said he would not allow Hezbollah members to be arrested.

Nasrallah defended the group's decision to withdraw from the Lebanon government last week, precipitating its collapse. The move, Nasrallah said, was a necessary measure to protect the country from the consequences of the indictments. He said the group acted "legally" and "constitutionally."

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