PM Hariri enters crisis mode over 2005 killing

Supporters of Lebanese leader trade accusations with Hizbollah-led opposition over tribunal investigating the murder of Rafik Hariri.

A handout picture released by Dalati & Nohra show Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (C ), heading a meeting to "the future” parliamentary block with former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora (L) and his aunt MP Bahia Hariri (R ) in his home, in Beirut, 20 September 2010, which offer "to the overall political developments in the country." The PM returned from Saudi Arabia earlier on Monday and reportedly plans to attend Tuesday’s cabinet session.  EPA/DALATI & NOHRA / HO  EDITORIAL USE ONLY

BEIRUT // Saad Hariri returned home yesterday to confront the worst political crisis of his year as prime minister, as his supporters traded insults and accusations with the Hizbollah-led opposition over an international tribunal investigating the assassination of Mr Hariri's father in 2005.

Arriving from Saudi Arabia, Mr Hariri immediately went into consultations with the members of his Future Movement and its allies in the March 14 movement on a week-old crisis instigated by a former security official held in prison for four years on suspicion of helping orchestrate the 2005 car bombing that killed the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in 2005. The former director of general security, Jamil Sayyed, has exchanged waves of insults over whether Mr Hariri conspired to have him framed for his father's murder in an effort to implicate Mr Sayyed's Syrian patrons.

Prosecutors issued a summons last week after Mr Sayyed held a press conference at which he threatened to obtain justice through the streets if he failed to gain it in the courts. Upon his arrival on Saturday from Paris, Mr Sayyed continued to accuse Mr Hariri of criminal conduct and avoided arrest with the protection of more than a dozen Hizbollah guards, who took temporary control of Beirut's airport to escort him home.

Mr Sayyed remains in violation of the order to appear before prosecutors for questioning, which judicial sources said would probably be upgraded to an arrest warrant for his intransigence. But he is under the protection of Hizbollah's security forces, meaning any attempt to arrest the former general would possibly spark a violent showdown between the Lebanese authorities and the Shiite militant group that many have called "state within a state".

As Mr Hariri arrived home, a key member of his coalition once again used the local media to denounce Mr Sayyed. In a press conference, Okab Saqr, a member of parliament, accused Mr Sayyed of leaking information from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to antagonise Hizbollah into believing the group faced possible indictment for the murder. Since the publication of that possibility last year, Hizbollah's leadership has embarked on an overt campaign to discredit the tribunal and has thrown its support behind Mr Sayyed's claims that someone - most likely supporters of Mr Hariri - paid witnesses to implicate Syria and its allies for killing Rafik Hariri.

"What was published ? was fabricated by Jamil Sayyed," Mr Saqr said. "We don't want an apology from Hizbollah but we want the Lebanese to know ? who spread the rumour," he added. Repeating his claim from last week that Mr Sayyed had demanded US$15 million (Dh55m) from the Hariri family in compensation - a charge he has denied - Mr Saqr suggested that Hizbollah pay half that amount to end this standoff, a wry suggestion that appears to have infuriated Mr Sayyed and his supporters. But Mr Saqr also took the extraordinary step of warning Hizbollah not to reject Mr Hariri's appeals to end the matter.

"We hope that Hizbollah meets [Mr Hariri's] extended hand because one blow will be met with 10 this time," Mr Saqr said. Mr Sayyed responded by calling Mr Saqr a "grasshopper" and that his issue was with Mr Hariri, who should return his supporters like Mr Saqr to "their cages" at Hariri's residence. But in addition to the personal attacks, which exceed in tone anything Lebanese politics have seen in years, Lebanese security forces remain furious that Hizbollah used its military wing to protect Mr Sayyed from arrest. They maintain that the protection is a violation of what they claim is a promise by the group to never use its weapons against the Lebanese after its violent takeover of Beirut to expel militias loyal to Mr Hariri in 2008.

Gen Asraf Rifi, the head of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, criticised both Hizbollah and Mr Sayyed's conduct and repeated claims that Mr Sayyed was in part responsible for Rafik Hariri's assassination. @Email:mprothero@thenational.ae

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