A UN-backed court investigating the 2005 assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik Hariri has delivered an indictment and four arrest warrants, the latest turn in a case that has transformed this Arab nation and brought down the government earlier this year.
The names of the accused were not released Thursday, but the court has been expected to accuse members of the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah. Many fear that could lead to street protests and plunge the violence-wracked country back into a new crisis.
The long-awaited indictment was confirmed by the office of Hariri's son, Saad.
"After long years of patience, waiting and continuous national struggle, it was announced today that the indictment in the assassination of prime minister Rafik Hariri and his comrades has been released," Saad Hariri's office said.
According to tribunal rules, Lebanese authorities now have 30 days to serve the indictments on suspects or execute arrest warrants. If they fail, the court can then order the indictment published and advertised in local media.
Saad Hariri also served as Lebanon's prime minister. But he was forced from office in January, when Hezbollah and its allies toppled his government in a conflict over the tribunal.
Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria, fiercely denies any role in the killing and says the tribunal is a conspiracy by Israel and the United States.
"Hezbollah’s official story, and you’ll hear this a lot, is that it was a conspiracy. The tribunal looked into that and there’s not a shred of evidence that Israel had anything to do with this at all, and all of the forensic evidence, all the telecommunications evidence, points to Hezbollah," said the CBC's Neil Macdonald.
As Macdonald explains in a CBC documentary broadcast last November, Rafik Hariri had been demanding an end of Syria's occupation of his country and the disarming of Hezbollah, a fundamentalist Shia militia that operates its own private army.
The dispute over the investigation encapsulates Lebanon's most explosive conflicts: the role of Hezbollah, the country's most powerful political and military force; the country's dark history of sectarian divisions and violence; and Lebanon's fraught relationship with neighbouring Syria.
Rafik Hariri was killed along with 22 other people in a massive truck bombing along Beirut's waterfront on Feb. 14, 2005.
The indictment raises concerns of a possible resurgence of violence that has bedeviled this tiny Arab country of four million people for years, including a devastating 1975-90 civil war and sectarian battles between Sunnis and Shias in 2008.
The tribunal said the names of the suspects will remain confidential, "in order to assist the Lebanese authorities in fulfilling their obligations to arrest the accused." Lebanon's state prosecutor, Saeed Mirza, confirmed that he received the arrest warrants, but did not disclose the contents of the indictments.
A Lebanese judicial official told The Associated Press that at least one of the suspects is a senior member of Hezbollah.