A United Nations tribunal filed the first indictment over the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, beginning a process that many fear could ignite new bloodshed nearly six years after the massive truck bombing.
The contents of the draft indictment were not revealed and may not become public for weeks as Belgian judge Daniel Fransen decides whether there is enough evidence for a trial.
The indictment, confirmed by the international court’s headquarters in the Hague, is the latest turn in a deepening political crisis in Lebanon, where Hezbollah toppled the Western-backed government last week in a dispute over the tribunal.
The court is widely expected to accuse members of Hezbollah of being involved in the killing, something the Shiite militant group has insisted it will not accept.
The Iran and Syria-sponsored group fiercely denies any role in the killing and says the tribunal, jointly funded by UN member states and Lebanon, is a conspiracy by Israel and the US.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon reaffirmed his “strong support” for the work of the tribunal, saying the filing of the indictment “is in pursuit of its mandate to end impunity for the terrible crimes” that killed Mr Hariri and 22 others, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
US president Barack Obama said the indictment was an important step towards achieving justice for the people of Lebanon.
He urged all Lebanese leaders and factions to preserve calm and exercise restraint, and said the Special Tribunal for Lebanon must be allowed to continue its work without interference and coercion.
But many fear the crisis could lead to street protests and the kind of violence that has bedevilled the tiny Arab country of four million people for years, including a devastating 1975-1990 civil war and sectarian battles between Sunnis and Shiites in 2008.
Prime minister Saad Hariri – the son of the murdered leader – has refused Hezbollah’s demands to renounce the court, prompting 11 Hezbollah ministers and their allies to resign last week.