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Hariri lends renewed support to UN tribunal

Amid Hizbollah warnings, Saad Hariri lends renewed support to UN investigation into the assasination of his father.

BEIRUT // The prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, has reiterated his support for the United Nations tribunal investigating the assassination of his father, as signs multiplied yesterday that the court would soon issue arrest warrants in the case.

The Shiite militant group Hizbollah already announced its expectation that its members will be accused in the 2005 car-bomb assassination of the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, a Sunni, and has called upon Lebanon's political and security forces to end co-operation with the effort it describes as a biased plot intended to benefit Israel.

But Mr Hariri insisted late Tuesday evening, in an interview with the BBC, that he would not heed Hizbollah's call to stop co-operation with the investigation.

"The work of the tribunal is ongoing and there are many investigators in Lebanon, and they are doing their own work," Mr Hariri told the BBC during an official visit to the UK. He also shrugged off the notion that co-operating with the tribunal might be dangerous because of the widespread belief that Hizbollah was involved with the assassination of his father.

"I think what is dangerous is not to [hold] dialogue about the issues that are really difficult in the country, and I think this is one of the difficult issues in Lebanon," said the prime minister, who last month appeared to pre-empt the findings of the tribunal by declaring that Syria had been wrongly singled out for possible involvement in the bombing.

Yesterday, his government's commitment appeared to be backed up, at least initially, by officials with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

In a statement issued by the tribunal's president, Antonio Cassesse, he said he expects that indictments in the attack that killed Rafiq Hariri and more than 20 people to be issued by December. However, the statement was followed by a number of confusing clarifications, issued by the tribunal press office, intended to dampen expectations.

But according to one official, with access to internal tribunal documents, the prosecutor charged with the investigation recently informed top officials that indictments would be issued before December 1.

The official, who does not have permission to speak publicly, did caveat that prediction by pointing out that only the prosecutor has the authority to issue indictments and is under no obligation to follow a set course.

"[Before December] is what we were told to expect but that could change depending on a number of technical details" the official said. "But it does appear we're close."

Lebanon is anxiously awaiting the official announcement of indictments, in part because of a long-simmering conflict between Mr Hariri and Hizbollah, whose officials have been issuing a steady drumbeat of threats directed at the tribunal should it indict members, and towards Mr Hariri's government for continuing to co-operate. Sunni and Shiite sectarian strife has roiled the country from 2005 to 2008.

Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hizbollah's No 2 official, addressed the indictment reports in an interview with a local newspaper.

"We have nothing to say over what we will do if the indictment were to accuse Hizbollah members because there are several possibilities. All we know is that such a decision is the beginning of possible unrest and danger in Lebanon," said Mr Qassem,

Mr Hariri's reference to further dialogue didn't seem to be well received by Mr Qassem either, who said in his interview that he doubted there would be further meetings or discussions.

"There is currently no need to hold such a meeting, but we don't mind holding one at the other side's request," Mr Qassem said. "Doors for meetings are not closed whenever we believe there is a need for discussion. But a meeting between Hariri and [Hizbollah Secretary General] Sayid Hassan [Nasrallah] is not at the agenda in the current stage."

mprothero@thenational.ae