BEIRUT // The United Nations investigation into the car-bomb assassination in 2005 of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others shifted this week from The Hague and Beirut to a military base in south-western France, where French weapons experts carried out a controlled explosion.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) confirmed yesterday that the test had taken place, with nearly 100 military experts and investigators looking on. It described the trial on Tuesday as a controlled explosive experiment, not a re-enactment of the killing, which occurred as Mr Hariri's motorcade drove along Beirut's corniche.
In a statement issued by the office of the prosecutor, Danielle Bellemare, it was said that the test was in keeping with the special court's mandate "to identify and prosecute those responsible for the attack of 14 February 2005 in Beirut".
"Neither in its method nor in its purpose can the experiment be compared to a crime reconstruction," the statement said, without elaboration.
The test in France comes against a background of escalating tensions in Lebanon over the work of the tribunal, which has its headquarters in The Hague, with offices in Beirut. It is widely believed here that the STL will eventually indict members of the Shiite militant group Hizbollah for the attack, which was initially blamed on Syria, most notably by Hariri's son, Saad, the current prime minister.
The French ambassador to Lebanon, Denis Pietton, used the announcement of the explosives test and a meeting with Mr Hariri to warn the Lebanese against forming conclusions before the tribunal has officially finished its work.
"We do not know when the probe of the STL will be over, and we do not know when the court's indictment will be issued. The country cannot be in constant turmoil waiting for the STL indictment," Mr Pietton told reporters outside the Gran Serial, the seat of Lebanon's government. The tribunal has given no indication publicly about the progress of the investigation or announced any timetable for handing down indictments.
Mr Hariri recently said his blaming of Syria immediately afterhis father's killing on February 14, 2005, was an ill-advised political decision. He has refused to comment publicly on the possibility that Hizbollah was involved in the crime.
As speculation about possible Hizbollah involvement in the murder has intensified, the movement and its allies have responded with an aggressive public-relations campaign aimed at discrediting the tribunal.
They have focused on the cases of the four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals who were detained on suspicion of involvement in Hariri's assassination but released four years later for lack of evidence. They have also called into question the credibility of any witness who has provided evidence to the tribunal and the UN-backed investigations that preceded it.
The "false witnesses" issue remains dangerously controversial in Lebanon and it has further corroded relations between the mostly Shiite allies of Hizbollah and the mostly Sunni backers of Mr Hariri, leaving many Lebanese terrified of a resumption of sectarian violence should any members of Hizbollah actually be indicted.
In 2006, the Hizbollah-led opposition tried to bring down the government led by the prime minister Fouad Siniora, a close ally of Mr Hariri. The attempt led to 18 months of instability, punctuated by deadly street clashes mostly between Sunnis and Shiites.
The cabinet was set last night to discuss an investigation into the "false witness" issue at its weekly meeting. And in what many feel could be a last ditch effort to prevent a further deterioration of Lebanon's security situation, Mr Hariri met with a top Hizbollah official to discuss a possible meeting with Hizbollah's chief, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah.