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Lebanese leaders quiet on Spiegel's bombshell report

Two weeks before crucial June elections, rival camps have refused to react to allegations that Hezbollah was behind the polarizing Hariri assassination in 2005.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 25, 2009

Two prominent leaders in the ruling March 14 coalition - Walid Jumblatt (l.) and Saad Hariri (r.) - have not sought to exploit allegations that a UN tribunal has uncovered evidence implicating Hezbollah in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Saad's father. In April, they discussed the tribunal's progress (left).

Bilal Hussein/AP

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Beirut, Lebanon

A bombshell revelation tying Lebanon's militant Hezbollah to the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister has generated a rare consensus among rival political camps less than two weeks before crucial parliamentary elections.

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The German news magazine Der Spiegel reported this weekend that the Netherlands-based international tribunal established to trace and judge the killers of Rafik Hariri has uncovered evidence that Hezbollah was responsible for the February 2005 truck bomb assassination.

Hezbollah described the allegations as "evil fabrications" aimed at "influencing the election campaign" and called on the international tribunal to refute the allegations.

A spokeswoman for the tribunal refused to discuss Der Spiegel's claims, saying, "We don't know where they are getting the story from. The office of the prosecutor doesn't comment on any issues related to operational aspects of the investigation."

The revelations, coming just two weeks before Lebanon holds closely contested parliamentary elections, have the potential to ignite simmering Sunni-Shiite tensions here. On Sunday night, a Shiite supporter of the Hezbollah-led opposition was killed during a clash with partisans of the Western-backed March 14 coalition.

Calculated leak against Hezbollah?

The opposition is expected to win marginally more seats than its March 14 competitor, allowing it to form the backbone of the next government.

The timing of Der Spiegel's report has sparked speculation that it was a calculated leak to put Hezbollah on the defensive just as the Shiite group was hoping that an electoral victory would earn it some respite from international and domestic pressure to dismantle its military wing.

It will also sustain anti-Hezbollah sentiment within the March 14 alliance, especially among Lebanese Sunnis who are still smarting from their drubbing at the hands of Hezbollah's fighters during street clashes in Beirut a year ago.

"My main worry is that March 14 will use the story against Hezbollah and that would be tantamount to a declaration of war and will be a disaster for Lebanon," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Lebanese expert on Hezbollah.

However, March 14 leaders seem determined to ignore the story.

Walid Jumblatt, chieftain of the Druze faction of the coalition, compared Der Spiegel's revelations to the April 1975 shooting of bus passengers in the Beirut suburb of Ain Rummaneh that triggered a 16-year civil war here.

"Beware of rumors and press leaks, they could damage the work of justice and provoke discord and sedition," said Mr. Jumblatt, formerly an arch-critic of Hezbollah who lately has softened his tone.

Hani Hammoud, a spokesman for Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri's son and political heir, also played down the story.

"We do not comment on any information regarding the tribunal unless it is officially stated by the tribunal," he said.

Spiegel details gripping, but analysis questionable

Der Spiegel claimed that Lebanese investigators had traced cellphone communications during the period just before Hariri's death to pinpoint an initial group of eight suspects. A "second circle of hell" of some 20 cell phones was subsequently identified that were used in close proximity to the first eight phones. The cell-phone numbers of the second group were all traced to Hezbollah militants, with the alleged mastermind named as Hajj Salim, the alleged head of Hezbollah's "special operations unit."

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