A judge at the UN-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik
Hariri has set March 25 as the tentative date to start the trial in absentia of four suspects.

The court said that any developments such as the arrest of murder suspects could delay next year's starting date set by the judge on Thursday.

"The setting of a provisional date for trial by Judge Daniel Fransen is an important judicial step on the road to trial,''  said Marten Youssef, a spokesman for the tribunal.

Hariri, one of Lebanon's most powerful Sunni leaders, was killed along with 22 others in a truck bomb blast on February  14, 2005.

The UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon has indicted four members of Hezbollah, the Shia Muslim group, which now holds a majority in Lebanon's cabinet.

Hezbollah denies involvement in Hariri's killing and has refused to extradite the suspects.

Trials in absentia

Thursday's announcement sets the stage for an unusual event in international justice, a trial without suspects in court.

The Hariri tribunal is the only international court that allows trials in absentia.

The four suspects include Mustafa Badreddine, a Hezbollah commander who also is the suspected bomb maker in the 1983 blast at the US Marines barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Americans.

The other suspects are Salim Ayyash, also known as Abu Salim, Assad Sabra and Hassan Oneissi, who changed
his name to Hassan Issa. 

Source: Agencies