BEIRUT (AP) — Hezbollah's leader vowed Saturday never to turn over four members of his Shiite militant group who have been indicted in the 2005 murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, saying in a defiant speech that "even in 300 years" authorities will not be able to touch them.
In his first comments since the indictments were announced Thursday, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah also promised the country would not see a new "civil war" linked to the findings of the U.N.-backed tribunal. But the assurance came with a tacit warning that peace in Lebanon depends on the government bowing to Hezbollah's power and not pushing ahead with arrests.
Nasrallah also denounced the six-year investigation as a plot by Israel and the United States and said it was "an aggression against us and our holy warriors."
Immediately following the speech, bursts of celebratory gunfire and fireworks erupted in Beirut.
Hezbollah, which gets crucial support from Iran and Syria, has denied any role in the killing and accused the U.N.-backed tribunal of doing Israel's bidding.
The accusations that Hezbollah — the most powerful political and military force in Lebanon — had a role in the 2005 Beirut truck bombing that killed Rafik Hariri has the potential to plunge this Arab nation on Israel's northern border into a new and violent crisis.
But Nasrallah sought to allay those concerns and said "there will be no civil war in Lebanon."
"This is because there is a responsible government in Lebanon that will not act with revenge," he added.
Hezbollah has amassed unprecedented political clout in the government this year, having toppled the previous administration in January when then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri — the slain man's son — refused to renounce the tribunal investigating his father's death.
The new premier, Najib Mikati, was Hezbollah's pick for the post. He issued a vague promise Thursday that Lebanon would respect international resolutions as long as they did not threaten the civil peace.
The ambiguous wording leaves ample room to brush aside the arrest warrants if street battles are looming. The Cabinet is packed with Hezbollah allies, so there is little enthusiasm within the current leadership to press forward with the case.
Even if Saad Hariri were still in power, however, it's unlikely he would be able to force Lebanese authorities to arrest the men — to do so, they would have to directly confront a well-armed militant group that wields serious power over the Lebanese state.
The bombing that killed Hariri and 22 other people on Feb. 14, 2005, was one of the most dramatic political assassinations in the Middle East. A billionaire businessman, Hariri was Lebanon's most prominent politician after the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.
In the six years since his death, the investigation has sharpened some of Lebanon's most intractable issues: the role of Hezbollah and its massive arsenal, and the country's dark history of sectarian divisions and violence.
Rafik Hariri was one of Lebanon's most powerful Sunni leaders; Hezbollah is a Shiite group.
On Saturday, Nasrallah said the suspects named in the indictment are brothers "who have an honorable history in resisting Israeli occupation."
He went on to accuse top investigators at the tribunal, including the first U.N. chief investigator, Detlev Mehlis, and his deputy, Gerhard Lehmann, of corruption.
The tribunal is full of "financial and moral corruption," Nasrallah said.
"Do you expect this tribunal to be fair with resistance fighters who fought against Israel?" he said. "This tribunal, since the beginning, was formed for a clear political target."
The case has further polarized Lebanon's rival factions — Hezbollah with its patrons in Syria and Iran on one side, and a Western-backed bloc led by Hariri's son, Saad, on the other.
One of the men named in the indictment, Mustafa Badreddine, has a storied history of militancy.
He is suspected of building the powerful bomb that blew up the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 Americans, mostly Marines, according to a federal law enforcement official and a book "Jawbreaker," by Gary Berntsen, a former official who ran the Hezbollah task force at the CIA.
Nasrallah confirmed the three others also are Hezbollah members in his speech.
"They will not harm us," Nasrallah said in a comment directed to his supporters. "Despite the tribunal ... Don't be afraid and don't be worried about it."
Follow Bassem Mroue at http://twitter.com/bmroue