UNITED NATIONS - A U.N. prosecutor Monday submitted a sealed indictment against suspects in the 2005 assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, concluding 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.
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.
Hezbollah has denied involvement. Hasan Nasrallah, head of the Hezbollah movement, has said he would not allow Hezbollah members to be arrested.
The militant group has called the tribunal an American and Israeli conspiracy. Nasrallah defended the group's role in the Lebanon government's collapse last week as 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, Saad Hariri, who became prime minister in 2009 and is backed by Saudi Arabia, against Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran.
The 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.
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.
Fadel reported from Beirut.