BEIRUT – A crowd chased away a team of U.N. officials gathering evidence Wednesday in the death of a former Lebanese prime minister, scuffling with the investigators and shouting abuse before snatching a briefcase, police said.
Nobody was hurt in Wednesday's melee, which underscored the charged emotions behind the international tribunal looking into Rafik Hariri's 2005 assassination. The Hague-based court said they are taking the incident seriously.
The tribunal has not yet indicted any suspects in the assassination, but speculation that the court could name members of the Hezbollah militant group has raised fears of violence between the heavily armed guerrilla force and Hariri's mainly Sunni allies.
Wednesday's incident happened at a clinic in Beirut's southern suburb of Ouzai, a Hezbollah stronghold.
Dr. Iman Sharara, who runs the clinic, said two men — an Australian and a French national — showed up with a Lebanese interpreter for an appointment to go through some phone records.
When she went outside to speak to her secretary, she saw a large group of women force their way into the clinic, screaming and trampling on documents belonging to the clinic.
"It looked like a real battle," she told reporters. "The investigators fled. The interpreter, they pulled her hair, they snatched things from them ... I returned to my clinic, hid inside and called my husband."
"I was shocked," she added. "I have no idea how and why this happened."
A police official said more than 30 women stormed the building, with another 75 or so remaining outside. He added, on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements, that the crowd shouted curses at the tribunal and one protester stole an investigator's briefcase.
It was not clear what was in the briefcase.
Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV station quoted witnesses as saying patients at the clinic became angry when they saw two foreign investigators walk in.
The court did not provide details but told The Associated Press in an e-mail that they take the incident "very seriously and we are currently looking into it."
The massive truck bombing that killed Hariri and 22 other people along Beirut's Mediterranean waterfront on Feb. 14, 2005 was one of the most dramatic political assassinations the Mideast has seen. A billionaire businessman, Hariri was Lebanon's most prominent politician after the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.
Suspicion fell on neighboring Syria, since 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 helped end Syria's 29-year military presence.
Since then, speculation has grown that Hezbollah — which is backed by Syria — will be indicted. Though the tribunal has not yet named any individuals or countries as suspects, Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has announced that he expects members of his group to be indicted. He vows not to hand them over to be prosecuted.
Many fear that indictments of Hezbollah members could trigger violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. In 2008, sectarian clashes killed 81 people and nearly plunged Lebanon into another civil war.