|Rafiq al-Hariri and 22 others were killed in 2005 by a suicide bomber in a vehicle loaded with explosives [File: AFP]
A Lebanese politician has warned that a sectarian war could break out in Lebanon if a UN-backed tribunal investigating the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, the former prime minister, issues indictments against members of the Hezbollah movement.
"If the indictments come out against Hezbollah in the trial of the Hariri assassination, there is war in Lebanon ... and today the atmosphere is just waiting for a spark," Suleiman Franjieh, the leader of the Marada movement, told Lebanese television channel LBC on Thursday.
"If the international tribunal [issues] a 'sectarian' decision, then yes, why don't we cancel it? ... The scenario of the next war is Sunni-Shi'ite [Shia]," the former interior minister said.
Lebanese political sources says that they expect such indictments to be issued over Hariri's killing in a massive suicide bombing in 2005 at the end of this year or early next year.
Some Lebanese fear that disputes over the tribunal could provoke a repeat of the violence that broke out in May 2008 when fighting between the predominantly Sunni followers of Saad al-Hariri, Rafiq's son and the current prime minister, and supporters of Shia Muslim Hezbollah killed 80 people.
Saudi and Syrian officials have been attempting to ease the political crisis in Lebanon's fragile unity government since a three-way summit in July, when support for the administration was emphasised and the use of force on the streets ruled out.
"We are in a test period and in light of the results of Saudi mediation we will take a clear-cut position on the tribunal"
Sheikh Naim Qassem,
Hezbollah's deputy chief
In recent weeks, the two countries have stepped up their efforts to mediate the situation as it has become increasingly tense.
"Saudi Arabia and Syria have reminded all the Lebanese political forces that they still see themselves as guarantors of stability and strongly encouraged them to put an end to their inflammatory rhetoric and to calm down," Tareq Mitri, Lebanon's information minister, said on Thursday.
Hezbollah has said it will not stand idle should any of its members be implicated and has dismissed the tribunal as an Israeli plot.
Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah's deputy chief, said in an interview published by the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai that the group had not uttered its "last word" and was giving time for Saudi efforts to "redress the wrongful course" of the UN investigation.
"We are in a test period and in light of the results of Saudi mediation we will take a clear-cut position on the tribunal," Qassem said.
'War of words'
In a show of force at Beirut airport over the weekend, which was condemned by political opponents, Hezbollah officials welcomed a pro-Syrian general at the centre of the dispute over false testimony and escorted him from the airport to prevent his possible arrest.
General Jamil al-Sayyed, who was jailed for four years in connection with the 2005 bombing but released by the tribunal for lack of evidence last year, had accused Saad Hariri's Future movement of being behind the false testimony implicating him.
Saad al-Hariri, who is set to address the nation this week, on Tuesday acknowledged that the mounting tensions had given Lebanon a bad image and raised fears of civil unrest.
"The country has been drowning in a war of words in recent weeks," he said.
"The Lebanese are deeply anxious and some believe that we are on the edge of a renewed wave of destruction ... This is not the image we want to portray to the world."