BEIRUT (Reuters) - A U.N.-backed tribunal seeking the killers of statesman Rafik al-Hariri handed indictments and arrest warrants to Lebanon on Thursday that officials said accused members of the militant Hezbollah group of involvement.
The long-awaited move was hailed as a "historic moment" by Hariri's son, opposition leader Saad al-Hariri, but poses an immediate challenge to the new government of Najib Mikati whose cabinet is dominated by Hezbollah allies.
Prosecutor Saeed Mirza gave no details of the indictments. Lebanese officials said four warrants were issued for Hezbollah members including senior leader Mustafa Badreddine, who was jailed in Kuwait over a series of bombings in 1983 and is a brother-in-law of slain Hezbollah commander Imad Moughniyeh.
The assassination on February 14, 2005 plunged Lebanon into a series of political crises, killings and bombings which led to sectarian clashes in May 2008, dragging the country back to the brink of civil war.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on nations to support the tribunal, a hybrid international and Lebanese court established under Chapter Seven of the U.N. charter, granting the U.N. wide powers to address violations.
But a Hezbollah television station said the indictments showed that the tribunal was politicized.
Analysts said Mikati, whose government has yet to win a confidence vote in parliament, now faces irreconcilable demands from Hariri's domestic and international allies -- who want Lebanon to comply with the court -- and the majority of his cabinet who reject any cooperation with it.
Lebanese analyst Oussama Safa said that refusal to comply would lead to Lebanon's isolation. "Now the government of Mikati has to decide what it is going to do. If it does not cooperate it risks putting Lebanon in trouble," he said.
The United States welcomed the delivery of the indictments, saying it marked "an important step toward justice and ending impunity for political assassinations in Lebanon."
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Lebanon's government should now hand them over to the special prosecutor.
"We're looking for it to take action," he said.
The other three suspects were named by Lebanese officials as Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Issa and Assad Sabra. It was not clear how many belonged to Hezbollah or what positions they held.
Hezbollah, both a Shi'ite Muslim political movement and guerrilla army, denies any role in the huge explosion on the Beirut seafront which killed Hariri and 22 others.
There have been fears in Lebanon that indictments of Hezbollah members over the assassination of the prominent Sunni Muslim leader, who was prime minister for several terms between 1992 and 2004, could raise sectarian tensions between factions still struggling with the legacy of its 1975-90 civil war.
Mikati urged Lebanese to be "reasonable and far-sighted" to ensure that "those who want to target the country and push us toward strife miss their chance."
Hezbollah has vowed to thwart attempts to detain any of its members and -- as the country's pre-eminent military force --could easily prevent security forces making any arrests even if the government approved them. It wants Lebanon to end cooperation with the tribunal, withdraw Lebanese judges and halt contributions to its funding.
A carefully-worded policy statement by Mikati's cabinet, which was formed just two weeks ago after months of wrangling, said on Thursday only that it "stressed the (importance of) truth in the crime against Rafik al-Hariri" and said it would monitor the progress of the court.
A senior official in Hariri's March 14 coalition, said the government must give unconditional commitment to the tribunal. "Mikati must realize that we will face any shortfall (in that commitment) with all our strength in a democratic and peaceful way," Fares Said said.
Hariri said the government had "no reason...to run away from this responsibility." In a statement issued in Paris, he said: "It is time to put an end to the episodes of killing. The era of the murderers is over and the time for justice is close."
Early reports on the killing implicated Syria, which denied any involvement, before attention switched to Hezbollah.
If Mikati's government does not cooperate with the court "it will face a problem with the international community," said Judge Yusif Saadallah al-Khoury. "The U.N. Security Council will act under Chapter Seven and move toward taking exceptional measures of political, economic and military nature."
Lebanese authorities will have up to 30 days to inform the tribunal of the measures taken in response to the arrest warrants being issued. Arrest warrants also include an order for the "prompt transfer" of the accused to the tribunal.
If authorities fail to make arrests, the court may start putting out "Wanted" adverts. If no arrests are carried out, the tribunal can hold trials in absentia.
The indictments triggered a political crisis in Lebanon when they were submitted to the pre-trial judge in January, bringing down Hariri's national unity government when Hezbollah and its allies resigned in protest at his refusal to renounce the court.
The indictments were amended three times while the judge assessed whether there was enough evidence for a trial.
Condemnation of the 2005 killing forced neighboring Syria to end a 29-year military presence in Lebanon, but attention slowly turned to Hezbollah and last year its leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said he expected members to be accused.
Hezbollah, formed under the guidance of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to fight Israeli forces that invaded Lebanon, shares the Iranian state's Shi'ite Islamist ideology.
It continues to enjoy strong moral, political and military support from Tehran and Damascus. The United States lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut and Aaron Gray-Block in Amsterdam; writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Philippa Fletcher