The leader of Hezbollah called Thursday on all Lebanese to boycott the U.N. tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of a former prime minister, saying all information gathered by the team was being sent to Israel.
Sheik Hassan Nasrallah spoke Thursday, a day after a crowd of women attacked two U.N. investigators and a Lebanese interpreter as they gathered evidence at a private gynecology clinic in Beirut. The women scuffled with investigators and stole several items from them.
The attack underscored the charged emotions behind the tribunal, which Hezbollah says is biased.
Nasrallah did not address the violence at the clinic or whether Hezbollah had asked the crowd to gather, but he confirmed that the wives and relatives of Hezbollah commanders and officials were among the clinic's patients.
In a reaction late Thursday, the tribunal criticized Nasrallah's boycott appeal and vowed to continue its investigation.
"Any call to boycott the tribunal is a deliberate attempt to obstruct justice," the court said in a statement. "The Special Tribunal for Lebanon will continue to rely on full cooperation by the Lebanese government and the support of the international community in fulfilling its mandate, in accordance with its statute."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack, saying that "such acts of interference and intimidation are unacceptable," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
The U.N. chief stressed that the tribunal is an independent court, established at the Lebanese government's request with a mandate from the U.N. Security Council, which is "an important tool to uncover the truth and end impunity," Nesirky said.
He called on all parties to refrain from interfering in the court's work, saying it is imperative that it be allowed to operate "safely and securely." He also commended the Lebanese authorities for their swift action in opening an inquiry into the incident, Nesirky said.
The tribunal has not yet indicted any suspects in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, but speculation that the court could name members of Hezbollah has raised fears of violence between the heavily armed Shiite guerrilla force and Hariri's mainly Sunni allies.
The tribunal's president and the State Department on Wednesday said the investigation will not be deterred by the attack, which happened in Beirut's southern suburb of Ouzai, a Hezbollah stronghold.
"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," Judge Antonio Cassese said in a statement Wednesday.
The Hague-based court said the visit to the clinic had been arranged in advance "in accordance with legal safeguards."
Nasrallah called it scandalous.
"I think we have reached a very sensitive and dangerous point that has to do with our dignity, pride and honor and which requires of us to take a different stance," he said.
"Why is it necessary for the international investigation to have the medical records of our women?"
"Why is it of concern to them? why is it necessary for the investigation to have the gynecology records of our women, wives, daughters and sisters?" he asked through the group's Al-Manar TV.
He said all sorts of violations and infringements against Lebanese sovereignty were taking place under the cover of the international investigation.
"Can we allow this violation of everything in our country to continue?"
"I call on every official and every citizen in Lebanon to boycott those investigators and not to cooperate with them ... because all that is being offered to them reaches the Israelis," he said.
"Continuing cooperation with those encourages more violations of the country and helps with the aggression against the resistance.
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. Nasrallah has announced that he expects members of his group to be indicted. He vows not to hand them over to be prosecuted.
The United States on Thursday accused Hezbollah and its allies Iran and Syria of attempting to endanger Lebanon's stability and undermine its independence.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice singled out Syria for displaying "flagrant disregard" for Lebanon's sovereignty and political independence, citing its provision of increasingly sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah and other militias in violation of a U.N. resolution and issuance of arrest warrants for senior Lebanese officials and foreigners.
Hezbollah and Syria have mounted a campaign to try to undermine the tribunal by raising questions about its neutrality. Earlier this month, Syria's judiciary issued arrest warrants against 33 Lebanese officials and foreigners for allegedly misleading the investigation, among them figures close to Saad Hariri and the first U.N. chief investigator, Detlev Mehlis.
Associated Press writer Mike Corder in Brussels contributed to this report.