updated 5/24/2009 11:20:41 AM ET 2009-05-24T15:20:41

Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group denied a report by a German magazine linking it to the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, saying Sunday that it was an attempt to tarnish its image before parliamentary elections.

Saturday's report in the weekly Der Spiegel came at a time of rising tensions before the crucial June 7 elections, which could result in the Western-backed government being ousted by a Hezbollah-led coalition supported by Syria and Iran.

Hariri's assassination has deeply divided the country. His supporters blamed Syria for the killing, a charge Damascus denies, but no one had ever accused Hezbollah of being involved.

Hariri was killed along with 22 others in a massive truck bombing on a Beirut street in February 2005. The billionaire businessman and longtime ally of Syria was quietly challenging Damascus' three decades of domination over Lebanon at the time of his assassination.

Domestic and international outcry
His killing sparked a domestic and international outcry that forced Syria and its tens of thousands of troops out of the country.

An international tribunal prosecuting the suspected assassins began its work in the Netherlands in March.

A Hezbollah legislator dismissed the Der Spiegel report as "a big lie."

"We are waiting for the international tribunal to react and to see where the German magazine got its information from," Nawar Saheli told The Associated Press Sunday.

A spokeswoman for the Hariri tribunal declined comment on the report.

"We do not address speculation," Radia Achouri said in a telephone interview. "The only information that is reliable is provided by the prosecutor himself."

Achouri said details of the investigation would remain confidential until the probe is completed.

Der Spiegel said in its Saturday report, which it said was based on sources close to the tribunal and verified by internal documents, that the investigation had reached the conclusion about Hezbollah's involvement about a month ago.

The report said that the assassins used eight cellular telephones bought on the same day in the northern city of Tripoli. One of them made the mistake of calling his girlfriend with one of the phones, revealing his identity.

Report links explosives, truck to attack
The report also linked the explosives and the truck used in the attack to the Shiite militant group.

Last month, four Lebanese generals were released by the tribunal. They had been the only suspects in custody.

"The magazine's accusations are police fabrications made in the same black rooms that fabricated similar stories about the Syrians and the four generals," Hezbollah's statement said.

After reading the Der Spiegel report, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for the arrest of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.

"If this is the conclusion of the investigators an international arrest warrant must be issued immediately against Nasrallah," he said.

Four years ago, U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis said the complexity of the assassination plot suggested a role by Syrian intelligence services and its pro-Syrian Lebanese counterpart.

During a news conference in Beirut, Mehlis had said Hezbollah was not involved in Hariri's assassination. An early draft of a report he issued in 2005 linked Syrian President Bashar Assad's inner circle but the two investigators who succeeded him did not repeat the accusations and said Syria was cooperating.

Parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri, son of the slain leader, did not comment on the Der Spiegel report.

Walid Jumblatt, Saad Hariri's political ally and an outspoken critic of Syria, warned against media leaks that he said were aimed at fomenting strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Lebanon.

"It seems that some newspaper reports are trying to precede the tribunal's verdict ... in order to foment strife, hatred and divisions," Jumblatt told a rally at his family home southeast of Beirut.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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