Lebanon's prime minister said Wednesday his country has paid its share of funds for a U.N.-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of a Lebanese statesman, averting a political crisis in the deeply divided country at a critical time in the Middle East.
Najib Mikati said the transfer of Lebanon's $36 million share in the required funding for the Netherlands-based court was made Wednesday. The decision was meant to "preserve Lebanon" at a time of regional upheaval, he said.
"It is a decision that reflects Lebanon's commitment to its international obligations and the principles of justice," Mikati said in a televised speech.
Tribunal spokesman Marten Youssef welcomed Mikati's pledge, but said Lebanon's contribution has not yet arrived.
"We are greatly encouraged by the Lebanese prime minister's announcement," he said. "We look forward to receiving the money and when we do we will confirm that it has arrived."
The U.N. investigation into the death of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the degree to which the Lebanese authorities should cooperate with it, has become one of the most divisive issues in Lebanese politics in recent years.
Hariri was killed by a suicide truck bomb on Feb. 14, 2005, in one of the most dramatic political assassinations in the Middle East. A billionaire businessman, he was at the time Lebanon's most prominent politician.
The court has indicted four members of the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah group which, along with its allies, holds a majority in Lebanon's Cabinet. Hezbollah strongly denies the accusations and refuses to fund the court, which it considers to be a Western tool to strike at the anti-Israel group.
It was not immediately clear how Mikati secured the funding, and he did not address the issue at his news conference. A government official told The Associated Press that the money was transferred from a Lebanese government bank account at the Central Bank. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
There was no immediate comment from Hezbollah, or from former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the slain leader's son who was ousted from his post in January by Hezbollah and its allies for his refusal to end Lebanon's cooperation with the tribunal.
But Hariri's political bloc, known as the March 14 coalition, denounced in a statement the way the funding was "sneaked out," circumventing the Cabinet.
Last week, Mikati had threatened to step down if the Cabinet refused to fund the tribunal at a Cabinet session. Hezbollah and its allies hold a majority in the government and had vowed to block the funding.
The Cabinet session was postponed _ suggesting politicians had reached an agreement in which funding for the court would be secured through sources other than the Cabinet.
Mikati portrayed the funding as a bold and necessary step to protect Lebanon from outside pressures. Western countries have hinted at possible sanctions if Lebanon fails to cooperate. The U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Maura Connelly, warned this month that a failure by the Lebanese government to meets its obligation to the tribunal could lead to "serious consequences."
Mikati said the decision was also based on his strong belief in the principles of justice.
"It is for these reasons that I transferred this morning Lebanon's share for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon," he said.
Mikati was Hezbollah's pick for prime minister when he replaced Saad Hariri five months ago.
He stressed Wednesday that the funding was not a victory for one faction over another, and said the tribunal must go on with its work while making sure it remains "unpoliticized, neutral and just."
Associated Press writer Mike Corder contributed from The Hague.