BEIRUT (AFP) -Lebanese authorities have arrested a Sunni Muslim who according to a UN report telephoned President Emile Lahoud minutes before the murder of former premier Rafiq Hariri, officials said.
Mahmoud Abdel-Al, who is also member of the Islamic charity Al-Ahbache that is believed to have strong links with Syria, was arrested on the order of the Lebanon”s top prosecutor Said Mirza, judicial sources told AFP.
His detention is sure to wrench up the pressure even more on the embattled pro-Syrian Lahoud, who has faced impassioned calls from opponents to step down ever since the murder of the five-time premier in a February Beirut bomb blast.
The arrest is the first to be made over the murder since the report”s publication. However four other suspects, all seen as close to Lahoud, were arrested in August and are still held in custody.
The move is the latest twist in a dramatic sequence of events after UN investigators probing the assassination implicated security officials in both Lebanon and Syria over the crime in their report.
Lahoud, a Maronite Christian, was forced to deny the claims in the UN report that he received a call on his mobile phone from Mahmoud Abdel-Al minutes before the bomb blast.
According to the UN report, Abdel-Al phoned Lahoud at 12:47 local time from his own mobile, just minutes before the blast, and followed this call up at 12:49 with one to Raymound Azar, the then head of Lebanese military intelligence.
Azar was arrested over the murder in August along with three other close aides of Lahoud: presidential guard head, Mustafa Hamdan, former general security chief Jamil al-Sayed, ex-internal security head Ali al-Hage.
Mahmoud Abdel-Al is also the brother of another key suspect in the assassination, Ahmad Abdel-Al, who is a leading member of the Al-Ahbache group. A third brother works for the presidential guard.
While Lahoud”s office rapidly issued a statement after the report”s release denying the president took a phone call from a suspect just before the murder, officials later acknowledged that someone had phoned one of his bureau”s mobiles.
"A call was recorded on one of the mobiles in the service of the president of the republic … but this call was not made with the president," a spokesman said.
The Lebanese cabinet had hailed the report from the UN inquiry led by German prosecutor Detlev Mahlis but stopped short of calling for a trial by an international court.
"The report lived up to the hopes of the Lebanese people … it provides the basis for finding the truth … and punishing those responsible," Information Minister Ghazi Aridi told reporters after a cabinet meeting.
But asked if ministers wanted to see a trial before an international tribunal, he said: "It”s still too early to discuss this question as the UN commission has yet to complete its inquiry."
US President George W. Bush has called the Mehlis report "deeply disturbing" and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Syria had to be held accountable for its "involvement".