WASHINGTON, Jan 17, 2011 (AFP) - President Barack Obama welcomed Monday's indictment for the 2005 murder of Rafiq Hariri as key to bringing the Lebanese premier's killers to justice and urged calm amid rising tensions.
"This action represents an important step toward ending the era of impunity for murder in Lebanon, and achieving justice for the Lebanese people," Obama said in a statement after the prosecutor of the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) filed his long-awaited indictment.
Although the contents of the document remain confidential, speculation was rife that it names the Hezbollah militant group in connection with the massive car bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others on the Beirut seafront.
"I know that this is a significant and emotional time for the Lebanese people, and we join the international community in calling on all Lebanese leaders and factions to preserve calm and exercise restraint," Obama said, calling the United States a "strong friend" of Lebanon.
"The Special Tribunal for Lebanon must be allowed to continue its work free from interference and coercion. That is the way to advance the search for the truth, the cause of justice and the future of Lebanon."
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed his comments, urging "all parties to promote calm and continue to respect the tribunal as it carries out its duties in a professional and apolitical manner."
"It will be impossible to achieve the peace and stability that the people of Lebanon deserve unless and until the era of impunity for political assassinations in Lebanon is brought to an end," she said.
She added that those opposing the special tribunal "seek to create a false choice between justice and stability in Lebanon; we reject this."
In expectation of being named, Hezbollah warned on Sunday it would "defend" itself and branded the tribunal a tool of the United States and Israel.
The Shiite militant group, backed by Iran and Syria, withdrew from the Lebanese cabinet with its allies last week, citing the UN-backed probe.
That move prompted the collapse of the unity government led by Western-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the murdered former premier.
Lebanon's president meanwhile postponed talks on naming a new prime minister, as regional leaders threw their weight behind a Syrian-Saudi bid to defuse the crisis.
"The Lebanese people have a right to both justice and stability, and efforts to undercut the STL only legitimize its efforts and suggest its opponents have something to hide," Obama said.
"Any attempt to fuel tensions and instability, in Lebanon or in the region, will only undermine the very freedom and aspirations that the Lebanese people seek and that so many nations support.
"At this critical moment, all friends of Lebanon must stand with the people of Lebanon," he said.
Lebanon's acting foreign minister earlier said he had summoned US Ambassador Maura Connelly for interfering in the country's crisis-hit domestic politics after she met with an MP formerly allied to Hariri.
But an embassy spokesman insisted Connelly's meeting on Sunday with Christian MP Nicolas Fattoush -- a former ally of Hariri's pro-Western coalition who later split from the bloc -- was part of routine US efforts to engage with a broad spectrum of Lebanese politicians.
"The United States does not interfere in Lebanon's internal political matters," the spokesman said, adding that his country hoped all Lebanese parties would cooperate in forming a new government.