By Thomas Escritt
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - An international court published an arrest warrant on Thursday for a fifth suspect in the 2005 Beirut waterfront bombing that killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 others, and almost tipped the country into civil war.
Judges at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague secretly indicted Hassan Habib Merhi on July 31 but gave the Lebanese government time to attempt to arrest the suspect before making the warrant public. They announced it on Thursday after Lebanese officials reported that the accused had not been found.
Prosecutors say Merhi, like the four suspects previously indicted by the court, is a supporter of Hezbollah, a political party and paramilitary group that is powerful in the eastern Mediterranean country. They say he helped plan the bomb attack and afterwards tried to hide Hezbollah's alleged responsibility.
The Shi'ite Muslim group denies any role in killing Hariri, a billionaire Sunni Muslim politician.
None of the four suspects previously indicted, who include Mustafa Amine Badreddine, a senior Hezbollah figure, is in the court's custody. The court is trying them in absentia.
In the 35-page indictment, prosecutors used mobile phone records to detail how Merhi and Badreddine allegedly worked with Salim Jamil Ayyash, another suspect, to monitor Hariri's movements over the final weeks of his life.
The bomb, in a Mitsubishi van filled with the equivalent of 2.5 tons of high explosive, was detonated by a still unidentified suicide bomber. The blast ripped through a busy street, wounding 226 other people and destroying a nearby hotel.
Afterwards, prosecutors allege Merhi worked with fellow indictees Hussein Hassan Oneissi and Assad Hassan Sabra to falsely attribute responsibility for the attack to a fictional fundamentalist group, 'Victory and Jihad in Greater Syria.'
Oneissi and Sabra called the Beirut offices of Reuters and the broadcaster Al Jazeera to claim responsibility on behalf of this fake group, prosecutors say. They then left a video by a tree near the broadcaster's offices which purported to show a last message from the suicide bomber.
The four existing indictees are being represented by court-appointed counsel who have entered pleas of not guilty on their behalf. Hezbollah says the suspects will never be handed over to the court, which it dismisses as a tool of U.S. and Israeli interests.
"The Office of the Prosecutor continues its efforts to fully investigate and prosecute those alleged to be responsible for the attack on 14 February 2005," said Norman Farrell, the court's prosecutor.
"All suspects are presumed innocent and have the right to a full defense," he added. "The prosecution (will) present reliable and credible evidence."
The Lebanon tribunal, which was set up in 2009 at the urging of Western governments, initially enjoyed the support of the then Lebanese government, but Lebanese attitudes towards its investigation have since become more lukewarm.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)