Beirut on brink as warrants issued to Hezbollah suspects

LEBANON is poised for a new round of violence after arrest warrants were issued for four key figures from Hezbollah over the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri and Lebanon’s prime minister until last January, called on his successor yesterday to execute the warrants issued by the UN-backed tribunal investigating his father’s killing. “The era of the murderers is over and the time for justice is close,” he said.

Hezbollah forced out Saad Hariri and his government, backed by the US and Saudi Arabia, after he refused to disown the tribunal and end its funding.

He had to choose between Hezbollah support, which would have kept him in power, and backing the tribunal investigating his father’s killing.

Although the tribunal did not release the names of the four people against whom arrest warrants have been issued, they were soon leaked to Lebanese media. The men were named as Mustafa Badreddine, Assad Sabra, Salim Ayyash and Hassan Ainessi.

Badreddine is a well-known Hezbollah identity whom the tribunal has reportedly identified as one of the key planners of the assassination. He is also brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyeh, the military commander of Hezbollah who was killed by a car-bomb in Syria three years ago.

Mughniyeh is regarded as the mastermind of several terrorist attacks, including the bombing of a US marines barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 people.

Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper said Salim Ayyash was head of the “assassination cell” that killed Hariri.

Rafik Hariri and 22 others were killed by a bomb hidden in a truck in 2005.

Syria, an ally of Hezbollah, was blamed by many in Lebanon and millions protested. Syrian military and intelligence personnel were forced to leave Lebanon.

The backlash forced a political retreat by Hezbollah but three weeks ago the group gained a majority of cabinet members in the new government of Najib Mikati, whom they anointed to replace Hariri as prime minister.

Hezbollah, which is also aligned to Iran, used its television network in Lebanon, al-Manar, to play down the importance of the warrants. In an editorial, Hezbollah leaders said the four names had been leaked before and that there was no surprise.

Last July, Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah warned the group would “cut off the hands” of anyone who tried to deliver warrants from the tribunal.

Mr Mikati said yesterday: “Today we are facing a new reality that we must be aware of, bearing in mind that these are accusations and not verdicts. All suspects are innocent until proven guilty.”

He now must choose between following the processes of the tribunal, which the world and many in Lebanon want him to do, or to ignore it, as Hezbollah, his support base, wants him to do.

Lebanese prosecutors have 30 days to act on the arrest warrants.

Political analysts in Lebanon said it was possible the Hezbollah-backed government would claim it was not able to track down the individuals.

But Saad Hariri said: “Today, we witness together a distinctive historic moment in the political, judicial, security and moral life of Lebanon. I feel the beats in my heart embracing the hearts of all the Lebanese who defended the cause of justice and refused to bargain on the blood of martyrs.

“The Lebanese government is invited politically, nationally, legally and ethically to implement its commitments towards the tribunal.

“It is time to put an end to the episodes of killing.”

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