Hezbollah bars members from Hariri court interview

Hezbollah has denied a request from the international tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister to interview some of its members, the group's deputy leader said Thursday.

The remarks were the latest in an escalating political crisis in Lebanon, fueled by the possibility that the Netherlands-based court probing the slaying of Rafik Hariri could indict some Hezbollah members in the case.

Hezbollah contends the tribunal has been poisoned by witnesses who have given false information. The indictments could be issued as early as next month.

The group's deputy leader, Sheik Naim Kassem, said in a television interview Thursday that the tribunal asked to see several of Hezbollah members after the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan earlier in September.

"We have not given a positive reply until now," Kassem told Lebanon's leading LBC television.

Although Hezbollah doesn't recognize the court, earlier this year, it said international investigators had interviewed 18 of its members and supporters.

Asked why Hezbollah prevented the September interviews, Kassem said only that "the way the tribunal is heading needs to be reviewed." He added that any indictments blaming Hezbollah would be "unjust" and would aim to harm the group.

Tribunal officials in the Netherlands were not immediately available for comment late Thursday.

Kassem's comments also reflected Hezbollah's intensified campaign against the tribunal.

Despite opposition to the court, Prime Minister Saad Hariri — son of the slain ex-prime minister — and his supporters insist the tribunal will go forward.

The bombing that killed Rafik Hariri and 22 other people along Beirut's Mediterranean waterfront on Feb. 14, 2005, was one of the most dramatic political assassinations the Middle East has seen. A billionaire businessman, Hariri was Lebanon's most prominent politician after the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

Suspicion immediately 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. Huge street demonstrations helped end Syria's 29-year military presence, paving the way for pro-Western parties to head the government in subsequent elections.

But since then, the tack of the investigation appears to have shifted toward Hezbollah — Syria's ally in Lebanon. The tribunal has not yet named any individuals or countries as suspects but Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has said he expects members of his group to be indicted.

The disputes are intensifying a long-running power struggle between Hariri's supporters and Hezbollah that exploded into street violence in Beirut in May 2008.