A U.N.-backed court indicted at least one senior Hezbollah member and three other suspects Thursday in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a killing that transformed this tiny Arab nation and brought down its government earlier this year.
The implication of Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah — the dominant player in Lebanon's new government — threatens to plunge this tiny Arab nation on Israel's northern border into a new and violent crisis by opening up sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites.
An international tribunal issued the indictments and arrest warrants Thursday without releasing the names of the accused. But a Lebanese judicial official who saw the warrants read the names to The Associated Press, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
One of the people named is Mustafa Badreddine, believed to have been Hezbollah's deputy military commander. He is the brother-in-law of the late Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh and is suspected of involvement in the 1983 bombings of the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait that killed five people.
The other suspects are: Salim Ayyash, also known as Abu Salim; Assad Sabra and Hassan Anise, who changed his name to Hassan Is.
Abraham Bryan, an expert on Hezbollah affairs who writes for the leading An-Nahar newspaper, said Badreddine is the only well-known suspect named in the indictment.
"Hezbollah surrounds its military leadership with secrecy," he said. "Nobody knows the three others. ... Are they alive or not? Are these their real names or no?"
The U.N.-backed Hariri tribunal had long been expected to accuse members of Hezbollah — something the Iranian-backed militant group has insisted it will not accept. Lebanon recently formed a new government that gives Hezbollah unprecedented political power.
There have been lingering fears that tensions over the tribunal could lead to street protests and a new crisis in a country where stability has long been shaky.
Lebanon has a dark history of sectarian conflict and potentially explosive mix of faiths, including Christian, Sunni and Shiite. Each makes up about a third of Lebanon's population of 4 million.
Rafik Hariri was one of Lebanon's most prominent Sunni leaders and Sunni supporters have demanded that his killers be held accountable.
Last year, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said the group "will cut off the hand" of anyone who tries to arrest any of its members. It was a potent threat, given that Nasrallah commands an arsenal that far outweighs that of the national army.
Hezbollah had no immediate comment.
The long-awaited indictment was welcomed by the office of Hariri's son, Saad, six years after the massive truck bombing along Beirut's waterfront on Feb. 14, 2005 that killed Rafik Hariri.
Hariri, 60 years old at the time, was among 23 people killed in the blast.
"The Lebanese government should commit to full cooperation with the international court, and not run away from detaining the suspects and hand them over to justice which is the guarantee to democracy and stability," Saad Hariri's office said.
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 also backed by Syria, fiercely denies any role in the killing and says the tribunal is a conspiracy by Israel and the United States.
The dispute over the court 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 neighboring Syria.
The indictment raises concerns of a possible resurgence of violence that has bedeviled this tiny Arab country of 4 million people for years, including a devastating 1975-1990 civil war and sectarian battles between Sunnis and Shiites in 2008.
Reverberations from the death of Rafik Hariri, a billionaire businessman, are still being felt today.
In January, the investigation triggered a political crisis that brought down the Western-backed government of Saad Hariri, who had been prime minister since 2009. Saad Hariri had refused Hezbollah's demands to renounce the court, prompting 11 Hezbollah ministers and their allies to resign from his unity government.
The move further polarized the country's rival factions: Hezbollah with its patrons in Syria and Iran on one side, and Hariri's Western-backed bloc on the other, with support by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. called Hezbollah's walkout a transparent effort to subvert justice.
After Rafik Hariri was assassinated, suspicion immediately fell on Syria because Hariri had been seeking to weaken its domination of the country.
Syria has denied having any role in the murder, but the killing galvanized opposition to Damascus and led to huge street demonstrations that helped end Syria's 29-year military presence.
The tribunal, which is jointly funded by U.N. member states and Lebanon, filed a draft indictment in January but the contents were not revealed as Belgian judge Daniel Fransen decided whether there was enough evidence for a trial. The draft has been amended twice since then.
In the meantime, Lebanon formed a new government this month — after five months of political wrangling — that gives Hezbollah unprecedented political domination. But Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who was Hezbollah's pick for the post, has insisted he will not do one side's bidding.
On Thursday, Mikati gave a news conference in which he tried to calm tensions while also navigating between the rival political factions.
"Lebanon's interests should be above all things," he said, adding that there was no final word yet on who killed the former prime minister.
"The indictments are not verdicts," Mikati said.
Saad Hariri has refused to take part in the government and is now a member of the opposition.
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.