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

By Leila Fadel and Colum Lynch
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."

Lebanese officials worry that the release of the indictments could ignite sectarian strife in a nation of Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims. The nation has faced intermittent crises since the 2005 attack.

The aftermath pitted the slain leader's son, who became prime minister in 2009 and is backed by Saudi Arabia, against Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran.

The 2005 bombing triggered a major diplomatic campaign by the United States and France to force Syria, which effectively controlled Lebanon at the time, to withdraw its security forces from the country. The U.N. Security Council established an independent commission in 2005 to investigate the assassination and set up the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in 2007 to oversee the trial of suspects.

The commission's first prosecutor, Detlev Mehlis of Germany, issued a report in October 2005 that linked Syrian and pro-Syrian Lebanese officials to the crime. But the tribunal's key witnesses have been discredited, and it remains unclear whether the Syrian government, one of Hezbollah's chief sponsors, remains a suspect. Despite the past allegations, Hariri recently absolved Syria of having a hand in his father's death.

The Lebanese government collapsed last week during Hariri's travels to New York and Washington to rally international support for the U.N. tribunal. Hariri was forced to cut his trip short after several opposition cabinet members, including members of Hezbollah, withdrew from the coalition government.

President Obama welcomed the filing of the indictment as "an important step toward ending the era of impunity for murder in Lebanon," and he called on "all Lebanese leaders and factions to preserve calm and restraint," a statement released by the White House said.

"The Special Tribunal for Lebanon must be allowed to continue its work, free from interference and coercion," he said. "That is the way to advance the search for the truth, the cause of justice and the future of Lebanon. Those who have tried to manufacture a crisis and force a choice between justice or stability in Lebanon are offering a false choice."

Members of parliament were to nominate a new prime minister Monday, but the issue was postponed as leaders from Syria, Turkey and Qatar met in Damascus, the Syrian capital, to discuss Lebanon's crisis. Deep divisions among Lebanon's political leaders could leave them without a government for weeks or months, paralyzing their institutions.

lynchc@washpost.com fadell@washpost.com

Lynch reported from United Nations headquarters in New York.

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