News from Beirut January 24  2002   ...Search

Car bomb kills former Lebanese warlord linked to camps massacre

by Nayla Razzouk

HAZMIYEH, Lebanon, Jan 24 (AFP) - Former Christian warlord Elie Hobeika, accused of directing massacres at Palestinian refugee camps in 1982, was killed in a car bombing with three bodyguards in this Beirut suburb Thursday, security sources said.

A Mercedes blew up as Hobeika's own car, a Range Rover, passed by only a few hundred metres (yards) from his home in the Christian eastern suburb of Hazmiyeh at 9:30 am (0730 GMT), they said. The blast was so violent that Hobeika's body was thrown 50 metres from the vehicle, and the body of one bodyguard ended up on a second floor balcony, an AFP correspondent at the scene said.

A four-storey building was also set on fire and six of its residents were taken to hospital, one in serious condition, said Military Prosecutor Nasri Lahoud at the scene. "Investigations are still underway, but Israel is usually behind explosions in Lebanon, and it could be linked to the trial of (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon in Brussels," Lahoud said.

An estimated 800 to 1,500 Palestinian refugees died at the hands of  Christian militiamen in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps outside Beirut the day after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, when Sharon was defence minister. Hobeika was intelligence chief of the Lebanese Forces militia, which carried out the massacres.

A subsequent Israeli inquiry pinned indirect responsibility for the massacres on Sharon, while blaming Hobeika directly for the killings. A suit was brought by Palestinian survivors or relatives of victims of the massacre under a 1993 Belgian law that allows prosecution in Belgian courts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, regardless of where the crimes were committed.

Legal wrangling is still underway over whether the case against Sharon will be allowed to proceed. The killing of Hobeika, 46, comes only two days after a secret meeting in Beirut between him and members of a Belgian parliamentary committee to provide information on the massacres.

In Brussels, Belgian Senator Josy Dubie said Thursday Hobeika had said he felt "threatened" and that he had "revelations" about the massacres. Hobeika "confirmed to me in the most formal manner that he would come to Brussels" if Belgium goes ahead with a trial against Sharon, Dubie said.

Hobeika, known by the nomme de guerre of "HK" during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, always denied involvement in the massacres. Sultan Abul Aynain, the representative in Lebanon of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, told AFP the "Mossad (Israeli intelligence services) assassinated Hobeika to prevent him from testifying against Sharon at the Belgian court. "Hobeika had announced that he was ready to present documents in Brussels.

It is normal that Israel assassinates him before the start of the trial of Sharon, the butcher of Sabra and Shatila," said Abul Aynain.

Countering those allegations, a high-ranking Israeli official in Jersusalem accused Syria, the major power-broker in Lebanon, of involvement in Hobeika's death. "To understand what happened ... one should have interrogated General Ghazi Kanaan 20 years ago when he was (military) coordinator of Syrian operations in Lebanon," the official told AFP, asking not be identified. "Ghazi is responsible for many assassinations in Lebanon; he notably bombed several US positions there, and he was intent on preventing Hobeika from talking about this matter," he charged.

The Israeli army entered Beirut on September 15, 1982, the day after the head of the Lebanese Forces, president-elect Beshir Gemayel, was assassinated in a bomb attack on his party headquarters blamed on pro-Syrian Lebanese. The massacres took place the following day while Israeli troops surrounded the camps.

Some 18 months later Hobeika switched alliances from Israel to Syria. In June 1985 he tried to oust Gemayel's successor as militia chief, Samir Geagea, but the attempt failed. After the end of the civil war, he held various ministerial posts, including those of electricity and labour, before leaving the government to concentrate on business.

He lost his parliamentary seat in the last elections. Hobeika is survived by his wife and son, who started receiving guests presenting condolences at their rooftop home in Hazmiyeh, including top Lebanese personalities and Syrian officials.

Lebanon president says Israel behind former warlord's killing

BEIRUT, Jan 24 (AFP) - Lebanese President Emile Lahoud implicitly accused Israel of being behind the killing of a former Lebanese warlord Thursday to stop him testifying in a Belgian court that may try Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for warcrimes. The killers "wanted to divert the attention of Arab and world public opinion from the crimes committed in the occupied Palestinian territories," said a presidential statement faxed to AFP.

The authors of a car bombing that killed Elie Hobeika, a Christian militia chief during the 1975-1990 civil war, also wanted "to prevent the deceased from testifying before the court in Belgium." The statement said Lahoud "denounces the assassination of former deputy and minister Elie Hobeika, which had multiple objectives." "The authors also wanted to harm internal stability which has been maintained for 11 years in Lebanon, which has become an example to follow and a meeting place for Arab and international conferences," it said.

Lahoud added that "these objectives will not be reached, especially concerning the internal situation which will not be affected by these crimes because the unity of the Lebanese, who have liberated the largest portion of southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation, is growing day by day."

Sharon was defence minister at the time of his country's invasion of Lebanon, when Israeli-allied Christian militiamen massacred hundreds of people at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut. He was held to be indirectly responsible by an Israeli inquiry, which also pointed the finger at Hobeika, who consistently denied involvement.

A Belgian court is studying whether it can accept a case brought against Sharon by relatives of the victims.

A Belgian senator, Josy Dubie, told AFP in Brussels Thursday that Hobeika told him and a colleague this week he had new evidence on the Sabra and Shatila massacres and would be prepared to testify in a trial of Sharon. Lahoud vowed that "the state and its security institutions will discover the authors of this attack and will refer them to justice."

Earlier, while visiting the site of the explosion, Lahoud's brother, military prosecutor Nasri Lahoud said: "Investigations are still underway, but Israel is usually behind explosions in Lebanon, and it could be linked to Sharon's trial in Brussels."

Israeli foreign ministry spokeswoman Yaffa Ben-Ari denied accusations that the Jewish state had a hand in Hobeika's assassination. "Israel has nothing to do with this event. It's ridiculous," she said.

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