BEIRUT (Reuters) - The prosecutor of the U.N.-backed tribunal issued on Monday a draft indictment over the 2005 killing of statesman Rafik al-Hariri, a long-anticipated move that has touched off a Lebanese political crisis.
Last week the militant Shi’ite Hezbollah and its allies toppled the government of Saad al-Hariri, the slain man’s son, and the group said it would not back Hariri for another term.
The escalation in political tension has alarmed regional leaders, who met in Syria on Monday in efforts to try to overcome the deadlock and prevent it from turning violent.
Deep divisions among Lebanese parties and their powerful regional backers reflect violent religious, ethnic and political rivalries running through the Middle East and beyond, giving leaders from Washington to Tehran a role in Beirut’s crisis.
The contents of the draft indictment, which will now be reviewed by pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen, were not revealed. Details of the charge sheet may not emerge for another six to 10 weeks, when Fransen is expected to decide whether there is enough evidence to proceed with a trial.
But Lebanese officials and Western diplomats have said they expected the court to accuse members of Hezbollah of involvement in the assassination. Hezbollah denies any such role and has described the tribunal as “Israeli tool.”
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said last year he will not allow the arrest of any of the group’s members. The group had asked Hariri to renounce the tribunal, withdraw the Lebanese judges and freeze Lebanon’s funding of it.
Hariri’s rejection of the demands triggered the resignation of 11 ministers from Hezbollah and its allies last week.
“The prosecutor of the tribunal has submitted an indictment and supporting materials to the pre-trial judge,” the U.N.-backed tribunal said in a statement.
Hezbollah officials declined to comment. But Hezbollah’s al-Manar television said in its news bulletin that the United States was behind the release of the draft indictment in order to sabotage efforts to solve Lebanon’s crisis.
It accused Washington of “pushing the indictment ahead to light the fuse to blow up the bridges for a solution,” adding that the “Americans control the indictments in form and content.”
Hezbollah is backed by Syria and Iran, while Hariri enjoys Western and Saudi support, meaning that the deep divisions among Lebanese parties are reflected in tensions between their powerful regional backers.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, speaking before talks on Monday with leaders of Syria and Qatar in Damascus, said instability in Lebanon was a concern for the whole Middle East.
“Our region could not cope with Lebanon entering a new atmosphere of uncertainty,” Erdogan said.
The political turmoil has stoked sectarian tension and ratings agency Moody’s said it could jeopardize Lebanon’s projected 5 percent economic growth in 2011, hitting profits of the country’s banking industry.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he fully supported the tribunal and urged Lebanon to form a new government as soon as possible.
“It is important not to prejudge the outcome of the investigation, and no one should politicize the work of the tribunal,” he told a news conference in Abu Dhabi.
The three leaders meeting in Damascus “affirmed their care to find a solution to this crisis based on the ... Syrian-Saudi efforts to achieve harmony between the Lebanese,” an official Syrian statement said after Monday’s talks, referring to earlier failed efforts by Saudi Arabia and Syria to forge a deal.
Erdogan also said Iran’s foreign minister would visit Turkey on Monday after the Turkish prime minister discussed the issue at the weekend with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Nasrallah said on Sunday that Hezbollah would fight efforts to tarnish its image. “We will not allow our reputation and our honor to be touched.”
He said leaders from several countries had intervened to demand Hariri be picked again to form the next government, but defended the decision to bring down the last one.
“It was a must to topple the incapable government because bringing it down might -- and I say, might -- open the door for Lebanon to form a loyal government that could carry the burden ... and be responsible,” he said.
Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara, Humeyra Pamuk in Abu Dhabi, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Damascus; editing by Mark Trevelyan and Mark Heinrich
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