BEIRUT (Reuters) – Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Saturday that authorities would never arrest members of the Shi’ite militant group indicted by a U.N.-backed tribunal seeking the killers of statesman Rafik al-Hariri.
In his first comments since the indictments were handed to the state prosecutor on Thursday, Nasrallah dismissed the accusations as unfounded and a failed attempt to sow strife and bring down Lebanon’s new Hezbollah-backed government.
The tribunal has not named the suspects but Lebanese officials said they included Mustafa Badreddine, a senior member of the movement and brother-in-law of slain Hezbollah commander Imad Moughniyeh, and three other members of the group.
“They cannot find them or arrest them in 30 days or 60 days, or in a year, two years, 30 years or 300 years,” Nasrallah said. Under the court proceedings, Lebanese officials have 30 days to make arrests after receiving indictments.
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, a Sunni Muslim who served several terms as prime minister, and 22 others in February 2005.
The killing plunged Lebanon into a series of political crises and assassinations that led to clashes in May 2008, and there were fears that the indictments could revive sectarian tension in a country still scarred by its 1975-90 civil war.
“We reject the baseless accusations and rulings and consider them an aggression against us,” Nasrallah said in a televised address. “We will not allow them to weaken us … and we will not let them drag Lebanon toward strife or civil war.”
Nasrallah has repeatedly accused the tribunal of serving a political agenda to undermine Hezbollah, and on Saturday he repeated charges that it was a U.S. and Israeli tool.
He displayed documents purporting to show that when the tribunal was transferring equipment from Lebanon to the court’s base in the Netherlands in 2009, it sent a consignment of 97 computers via Israel — which fought a 34-day war with Hezbollah five years ago — rather than ship them directly from Beirut.
PORTRAYS PRO-ISRAELI COURT
He also portrayed the head of the court, Antonio Cassese, as a friend of Israel who is hostile to Hezbollah and said many of its officials had links to U.S. intelligence.
“This investigation, and this court… as far as we are concerned is American and Israeli,” he said.
While Hezbollah is powerful enough to resist any attempt to act against its members, it is anxious that its domestic reputation as a force to stand up to Israel should not be tarnished by accusations of involvement in internal conflict.
The group is already worried by the turmoil affecting its close ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It has also had to explain why, after supporting other Arab uprisings against autocratic rule, it has backed the Syrian leader.
The indictments triggered a political crisis when they were submitted to the pre-trial judge in January. Hezbollah and its allies brought down a coalition government led by Hariri’s son Saad when he refused their demands to renounce the court.
The indictments were handed to Lebanon’s prosecutor days before parliament is due to hold a vote of confidence in the new Hezbollah-backed government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, and Nasrallah said the timing was deliberate.
“The indictment was issued to give ammunition to the (opposition) to bring down the government,” he said.
Saad al-Hariri has said Mikati’s government cannot “run away from its responsibility” to comply with arrest warrants issued for the four suspects. Lebanon will also face strong Western pressure to cooperate with the court.
A carefully worded policy statement by Mikati’s cabinet, issued on the day the indictments were delivered, said only that it “stressed the (importance of) truth in the crime against Rafik al-Hariri” and it would monitor the progress of the court.