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Lebanon tense as Hariri murder trial opens

LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands--Four Hezbollah members went on trial in absentia at a special U.N. tribunal on Thursday accused of murdering Lebanon's former premier Rafik Hariri in a 2005 truck bombing, as sectarian tensions ran high in the Middle East country.

The trial opened in a suburb outside The Hague nine years after the huge Beirut blast that killed the billionaire Hariri and just hours after another car bombing killed at least three in a Hezbollah stronghold in Lebanon near the border with war-ravaged Syria.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is unique in international justice as it was set up to try the perpetrators of a terrorist attack and because it can try the suspects in absentia.

A packed public gallery looked on as the repeatedly delayed proceedings began, with a large scale model of downtown Beirut where the 2005 attack happened on a table before judges.

Hariri, Lebanon's Sunni prime minister until his resignation in October 2004, was on his way home for lunch when a suicide bomber detonated a van full of explosives equivalent to 2.5 tonnes of TNT as his armored convoy passed.

The February 14, 2005 seafront blast killed 22 people including Damascus opponent Hariri and wounded 226, leading to the establishment by the U.N. Security Council of the STL in 2007.

Hariri's son Saad — who himself was prime minister 2009-2011 — sat in the courtroom behind the victims' representative. His hands were folded as he listened attentively.

Suspects Belong to Syria- and Iran-Backed Hezbollah

Although the attack was initially blamed on pro-Syrian Lebanese generals, the court in 2011 issued arrest warrants against Mustafa Badreddine, 52, Salim Ayyash, 50, Hussein Oneissi, 39, and Assad Sabra, 37, all members of the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah.

A fifth suspect, Hassan Habib Merhi, 48, was indicted last year and his case may yet be joined to the current trial.

“The attackers killed innocent bystanders, a student, a hotel worker, a cousin, a father, a brother, friends,” chief prosecutor Norman Farrell said in his opening statement.

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Supporters of slain former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri gather under a giant billboard with his portrait and the word “Justice” in Arabic, a few hundred meters from the site of the 2005 blast in Beirut, Lebanon on Thursday, Jan. 16. Nearly nine years after a truck bomb killed Hariri and 22 others.

(AP)

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