Crowd attacks UN investigators in Beirut

AP News
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Posted: Oct 27, 2010 4:46 PM
Crowd attacks UN investigators in Beirut

A crowd "violently attacked" a team of U.N. investigators gathering evidence Wednesday in the death of a former Lebanese prime minister and stole several items from them, authorities said.

The two investigators and an interpreter received medical attention, according to a statement from the prosecutor's office at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

The melee at a private clinic in Beirut underscored the charged emotions behind the international tribunal looking into Rafik Hariri's 2005 assassination, and it raised concerns about intimidation and interference in the probe.

"Those who carried out this attack must know that violence will not deter the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, a court of law, from fulfilling its mandate," said a statement from the tribunal's president, Judge Antonio Cassese.

The Hague-based court said the visit had been arranged in advance "in accordance with legal safeguards" and that members of the judicial police and the army accompanied the investigators.

"During the meeting, a large group of people showed up unexpectedly and violently attacked the investigators and their female interpreter," the statement said. The Lebanese army "extracted" the staffers and they received medical attention.

The statement also said several items were stolen, but it did not elaborate.

The tribunal has not yet indicted any suspects in the assassination, but speculation that the court could name members of the Hezbollah militant group has raised fears of violence between the heavily armed Shiite guerrilla force and Hariri's mainly Sunni allies.

Wednesday's incident happened at a gynecology clinic on the first floor of a residential building in Beirut's southern suburb of Ouzai, a Hezbollah stronghold.

Dr. Iman Sharara, who runs the clinic, said two men _ an Australian and a French national _ showed up with a Lebanese interpreter for an appointment to go through some phone records. She said the men requested the phone numbers of up to 17 patients who had visited her clinic since 2003.

When she went outside to speak to her secretary, she saw a large group of women force their way into the building, screaming and trampling on documents belonging to the clinic.

"It looked like a real battle," she told reporters. "The investigators fled. The interpreter, they pulled her hair, they snatched things from them ... I returned to my clinic, hid inside and called my husband."

A police official said more than 30 women stormed the building, with another 75 or so remaining outside. He added, on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give public statements, that the crowd cursed the tribunal and one protester stole an investigator's briefcase. It was not known what was inside.

Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV station called the investigators intrusion on a private clinic "scandalous." It quoted witnesses as saying female patients at the clinic became angry when they saw two foreign investigators walk in.

The clinic is in a conservative Shiite Muslim area and the presence of foreign men may have provoked sensitivities.

The tribunal stressed Wednesday that the visit with the doctor was conducted "in a respectful manner."

The massive truck bombing that killed Hariri and 22 other people along Beirut's Mediterranean waterfront on Feb. 14, 2005 was one of the most dramatic political assassinations the Mideast has seen. A billionaire businessman, Hariri was Lebanon's most prominent politician after the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

Suspicion fell on neighboring Syria, since Hariri had been seeking to weaken its domination of the country. Syria has denied having any role in the murder, but the killing galvanized opposition to Damascus and led to huge street demonstrations helped end Syria's 29-year military presence.

Since then, speculation has grown that Hezbollah _ which is backed by Syria _ will be indicted. Though the tribunal has not yet named any individuals or countries as suspects, Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has announced that he expects members of his group to be indicted. He vows not to hand them over to be prosecuted.

Many fear that indictments of Hezbollah members could trigger violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. In 2008, sectarian clashes killed 81 people and nearly plunged Lebanon into another civil war.

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Associated Press writer Elizabeth A. Kennedy contributed to this report from Beirut.