Lebanon's pro-Syrian president said Thursday a UN tribunal on the killing of a former prime minister could divide Lebanese, echoing broad fears of sectarian strife in a country still haunted by a civil war.
The UN Security Council moved on Wednesday to set up the court unilaterally after failed efforts to approve tribunal statutes through constitutional channels in Lebanon, where normal government has been paralyzed by political crisis.
"What we hope for is that the tribunal of international character will not be, in the way in which its statutes have been approved, a reason for more distance between the Lebanese," President Emile Lahoud said.
The tribunal into the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri has been at the heart of a deep political split between Lebanese politicians allied to Damascus and others who see it as a means to curb Syrian influence in Lebanon.
The governing coalition, including Saad al-Hariri, son and political heir of the former premier, had made establishment of the tribunal a priority and welcomed the Security Council vote as a victory for Lebanon.
Hariri and his allies accuse Syria of orchestrating the February 14, 2005 bombing which killed his father and 22 others in Beirut. They also say Damascus was behind a string of other attacks on anti-Syrian figures. Syria rejects the accusations.
Damascus has warned that the Security Council's move could plunge Lebanon into more instability, a view that was echoed in Lebanese newspapers across the spectrum Thursday.
Writing in the pro-government An-Nahar newspaper, columnist Ali Hamadeh said "the rope was tightening around the neck of the murderers". But he warned that the court "may not bring immediate security. It may push those harmed (by it) to threaten, intimidate and sabotage".
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, another Syria ally, had refused to call the chamber to vote on the court statutes because he contests the legitimacy of the government, which is controlled by anti-Syrian leaders and backed by Western states.
Berri said the Security Council vote had ignored Lebanon's constitution and the need for Lebanese consensus. "You have picked internationalization instead of the state," Berri, a leading member of the opposition, said in a brief statement.
Allies of Damascus in Lebanon, including Hezbollah, have claimed the tribunal will be used as a political tool by the United States. Hezbollah has yet to comment on the Security Council vote but has been highly critical of calls for unilateral UN action to set up the court.
Critics of the tribunal's unilateral establishment also saw trouble ahead. Omar Neshabi, writing in the pro-opposition al-Akhbar newspaper, said setting up the court without consensus "raises serious concern for security and stability".
Hariri, a Sunni Muslim who leads the governing coalition, also said on Wednesday that it was time to put aside political differences and promised steps towards reconciliation to end Lebanon's worst political crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.
Together, Berri's Amal movement and Hezbollah represent most of Lebanon's Shi'ite Muslims, giving the standoff a sectarian dimension and fuelling tension between Sunnis and Shi'ites.
Hezbollah and its allies have always said they support the idea of the tribunal but wanted to discuss its mandate.
Hariri was killed by a suicide truck bomb attack on his motorcade as it was passing along Beirut's seafront corniche. The road was opened Thursday for the first time since the attack.
(China Daily via agencies June 1, 2007)