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Lebanon approves UN tribunal to try assassination suspects

Lebanon's U.S.-backed government on Saturday approved the creation of an international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Lebanon's U.S.-backed government on Saturday approved the creation of an international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of prime minister Rafik Hariri, overriding objections by Hezbollah and the country's pro-Syrian president.

The approval, though widely expected, was bound to deepen the country's political crisis and spark mass street demonstrations threatened by Hezbollah and its allies to topple the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

Siniora insisted the decision was not "a provocation" against its opponents.

"On the contrary, it is aimed at protecting everybody," he said, according to a statement read by Information Minister Ghazi Aridi after the tribunal's approval.

A continuing UN investigation into the February 2005 truck bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others has said the killing's complexity suggests the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services played a role in the assassination. Damascus has denied any role in the killing.

Siniora, according to Aridi, stressed that the creation of the international tribunal would help in uncovering "the truth" in Hariri's assassination.

Before the United Nations can set up the tribunal, it also must be approved by Lebanon's pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, who has expressed reservations but denied trying to block the effort, and by the parliament, where Syria's critics hold a majority.

Lahoud called Saturday's cabinet meeting "unconstitutional" because six pro-Hezbollah ministers who resigned earlier this month were absent.

Siniora said earlier Saturday he was willing to postpone the cabinet meeting to approve the tribunal if those pro-Hezbollah ministersgave their wordtoreturn to the government. Hezbollah ignored the request.

On Friday, Hezbollah again vowed to hold mass street demonstrations in an effort to topple the government because its demand for greater representation in the cabinet has not been met.

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The guerrilla group, which has seen an upsurge in its political clout since its war with Israel over the summer, had previously postponed calls for street rallies following Tuesday's assassination of Pierre Gemayel, an anti-Syrian Christian leader who was Lebanon's industry minister.

Gemayel's killing added to Lebanon's instability by re-igniting anger at Syria, which dominated Lebanon for nearly three decades but was forced to withdraw its troops last year over accusations it was behind Hariri's killing.

Further complicating matters, Syria suggested Friday it may not co-operate with the tribunal because Damascus was not consulted on the plan, according to a letter it sent to Secretary General Kofi Annan and circulated Friday at the UN Security Council.

Syria said in the letter that the tribunal should not be arranged until after the investigation is finished and announced that hasty adoption of the court's statute "will firmly establish our belief that Syria has no connection with this tribunal."

Business leaders called a two-day strike that began Friday to urge the rival leaders to "take national decisions … engage in dialogue and stop making threats of street protests." Factories, banks and financial institutions closed, though many small shops remained open.

Underlining the atmosphere of fear following Gemayel's assassination, some cabinet ministers are taking shelter in the government headquarters in downtown Beirut.

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