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 in 1983 over a series of bombings and is a brother-in-law of slain Hezbollah commander Imad Moughniyeh.
The Feb. 14, 2005 assassination plunged Lebanon into a series of political crises, assassinations and bombings which led to sectarian clashes in May 2008, dragging the country back to the brink of civil war.
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 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 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. All four were also suspected of involvement in the killing of communist leader George Hawi and attempts to kill former ministers Marwan Hamade and Elias al-Murr, the officials said.
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 towards strife miss their chance".
Hezbollah has vowed to thwart attempts to arrest any of its members and 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.
Mikati has said he wants the government to honour Lebanon's international commitments unless a national consensus emerges to reverse that position -- which is unlikely given Saad al-Hariri's continued strong support for the tribunal.
Hariri urged Mikati to cooperate with the court.
"The Lebanese government is invited, politically, nationally, legally and ethically, to implement its commitments towards the tribunal. There is no reason for anyone to run away from this responsibility," he said in a statement.
"It is time to put an end for the episodes of killing. The era of the murderers is over and the time for justice is close."
Critics of the investigation into Hariri's killing say it has been marred by mishaps, including an early reliance on witnesses who later recanted their testimony and the detention of four senior Lebanese officers for four years -- only for them to be released in 2009 for lack of evidence.
Early reports implicated Syria, which denied any involvement, before attention switched to Hezbollah.
However discredited the tribunal may be for some Lebanese, Thursday's indictments pose an early dilemma for Mikati.
If his 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 towards taking exceptional measures of political, economic and military nature."
The tribunal, a hybrid international and Lebanese court, was established under Chapter Seven of the U.N. charter, granting the United Nations wide powers to address violations.
The Lebanon tribunal declined to comment after Mirza said he had received the indictments, but Lebanese authorities will have up to 30 days to inform the tribunal of the measures taken in respose to the arrest warrants being issued.
Warrants of arrest also include an order for the "prompt transfer" of the accused to the tribunal upon their arrest.
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. The indictments were twice amended while the judge assessed whether there was enough evidence to proceed with a trial.
The crisis brought down Hariri's national unity government when Hezbollah and its allies resigned in protest at his refusal to renounce the court.
Condemnation of the 2005 killing forced neighbouring 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.
Hezbollah continues to enjoy strong moral, political and military support from Tehran and Damascus. The United States lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation.