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UN, Lebanon Sign Hariri Tribunal Deal

The United Nations has signed an agreement with Lebanon to create an international tribunal to prosecute suspects in the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But as VOA's correspondent at the U.N. Peter Heinlein reports, the accord faces a difficult hurdle before it takes effect.

Undersecretary General for Legal Affairs Nicholas Michel signed the accord Tuesday on behalf of the world body. A statement issued by the U.N. spokesman's office says the document had earlier been signed by the director General of Lebanon's Justice Ministry in Beirut.

But a senior U.N. official emphasized that the agreement has no legal force until it is ratified by Lebanon's parliament. The spokesman's brief statement notes that "it is up to the competent Lebanese authorities to take the steps necessary under the Lebanese Constitution" to ratify the deal before it takes effect.

The tribunal has become a battleground between pro and anti-Syrian elements in Lebanon. Anti-Syrian Prime Minister Fuad Siniora's government asked for the court last year to try suspects in the Hariri assassination.

Siniora and a majority of members of Lebanon's parliament recently sent a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressing support for the tribunal.

But the pro-Syrian leader of Parliament Nabih Berri has refused to call parliament into session, and the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud has charged that Prime Minister Siniora's letter to the U.N. constitutes a violation of Lebanon's constitution.

Pro-Syrian politicians Tuesday accused U.N. officials of taking sides in the dispute. But Undersecretary-General Michel rejected the charge. He says the world body is taking pains to maintain its impartiality. "We really do insist that the U.N. wants to be part of a peaceful Lebanon. We really want this tribunal to be part of the conditions that are conducive to a lasting peace in the country. In no way would we be ready to participate in the establishment of a tribunal that would be a political tool," he said.

Former Prime Minister Hariri was killed almost two years ago in a massive bomb attack in a Beirut suburb. Twenty two others were also killed in the explosion.

A U.N. commission has been investigating the assassination, along with a series of other political killings in Lebanon. Syrian security forces are widely suspected of having been part of a well-organized assassination plot.

Syria has vehemently denied any involvement, and Syrian officials say the series of political assassinations is aimed at undermining Syria's longstanding influence in Lebanon.