Saad Hariri Jan. 12, 2011 (AP)
President Barack Obama meets with Lebanese PM Saad Hariri, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011, at the White House. Photo by AP
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U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday welcomed the filing of an indictment over the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and said the UN-backed tribunal for Lebanon must be allowed to continue its work.

"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 written statement.

The prosecutor of the U.N.-backed tribunal issued on Monday a draft indictment over the 2005 killing of Hariri, and 22 others, a long-anticipated move that has touched off a Lebanese political crisis.

Last week, Hezbollah and its allies toppled the government of Saad Hariri, the slain man's son, and the group said it would not back Hariri for another term.

The escalation in political tension has alarmed regional leaders, who met in Syria on Monday to try to overcome the deadlock and prevent it from turning violent.

"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.

Obama said the Special Tribunal for Lebanon must be allowed to work, without interference and coercion. He called efforts to "manufacture a crisis" a "false choice," and said efforts to undermine the tribunal show that its opponents have something to hide.

"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," Obama said.

Deep divisions among Lebanese parties and their regional backers reflect violent religious, ethnic and political rivalries running through the Middle East and beyond, giving leaders from Washington to Tehran a role in Beirut's crisis.

The contents of the draft indictment, to be reviewed by pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen, were not revealed. Details may not emerge for another six to 10 weeks, when Fransen is expected to decide whether there is enough evidence to proceed with a trial.

Lebanese officials and Western diplomats have said they expected the court to accuse members of Hezbollah of involvement in the assassination. Hezbollah denies any such role and has described the tribunal as "Israeli tool."

The United States, a "strong friend of Lebanon," stands with other countries in support of Lebanon's sovereignty, independence and stability, Obama said.

"At this critical moment, all friends of Lebanon must stand with the people of Lebanon," he said.

Also commenting on the occasion of the indictment's filing, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was "confident that the Tribunal will continue to operate according to the highest standards of judicial independence and integrity."

"We call on all parties to promote calm and continue to respect the Tribunal as it carries out its duties in a professional and apolitical manner," Clinton added, saying that the "United States and all friends of Lebanon stand together in support of its sovereignty and independence."

"While great progress has been made since this deadly attack in 2005, 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," the secretary of state added.‬