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Elie Hobeika Assassinated
A bomb in Beirut on Thursday, January 24th 2002 killed Elie Hobeika, whose pro-Israel militia massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982.

A Lebanese group saying it opposed Syria's continued grip on the country claimed responsibility in a faxed statement, saying Hobeika was a traitor for switching his allegiance to Damascus some years ago. The claim could not immediately be verified.

The dead man had no shortage of Palestinian and Lebanese enemies, but many in Beirut initially jumped to blame the Israelis whose invading troops surrounded the camps at the time.

Hobeika died a day after saying he was ready to testify in a case brought by Palestinians in Belgium accusing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who denies sanctioning the massacres when he was defense minister, of crimes against humanity.

Israel denied any role in the blast which ripped through a Beirut suburb as Hobeika was leaving home, killing him, two bodyguards and another person and injuring three more.

"It's totally unfounded. We have left Lebanese territory. We don't want to play (a role) there any more," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said in response to an accusation by Marwan Hamadeh, Lebanon's minister of displaced people.

He had told reporters in Jordan:

"Of course Israel doesn't want witnesses against it in this historic case in Belgium which will certainly convict Ariel Sharon, the permanent and continued criminal."

A Sharon aide called his claim rubbish and a complete lie.

Celebratory gunfire erupted in Palestinian camps in Beirut after news of Hobeika's death. It was the first killing of a major Lebanese political figure since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Later, a group calling itself the "Lebanese For a Free and Independent Lebanon" said in a statement faxed to Reuters that it carried out the attack to warn Syria to get out of Lebanon.

There were no claims from better known anti-Syrian groups.


Justice sources said a car carrying 10 kg (22 lb) of explosives blew up as it passed Hobeika's car, where oxygen tanks fueled the blast, charring the bodies of Hobeika and his driver and tossing others as far as 50 meters (yards).

However, one security source said explosives had been planted in diving gear that Hobeika had in his own vehicle.

The bodies lay scattered amid pistols and twisted hunks of metal from cars and glass from windows shattered by the blast.

Rescue workers rushed to extinguish fires sparked by the bomb in nearby buildings.

"Israel is responsible for this," said Nasri Lahoud, a Lebanese military court official, as he inspected the scene.

"I'm sure it was the Palestinians," said one of Hobeika's weeping neighbors, suggesting Palestinians had finally taken revenge for the massacres.

Hobeika commanded the Christian Lebanese Forces militia, which killed hundreds of Palestinian refugees while Israeli troops, who invaded Lebanon in 1982, encircled the two camps.

Hobeika said in July that to prove his own innocence he was ready to testify against Sharon. He repeated the offer on Wednesday to visiting Belgian senators. The Palestinians' case was launched under laws giving Belgian courts powers to try crimes against humanity, wherever they have been committed.

A 1983 Israeli inquiry into the camp massacres said Sharon bore "indirect responsibility" and that Hobeika had helped direct Christian fighters who did the killing.


There was no immediate reaction from Syria, with which Hobeika maintained close ties. Lebanon has been dominated by Syria since the civil war.

Born in 1957, Hobeika was also a hated figure among his one-time allies in the Christian Lebanese Forces, who saw him as a traitor for switching his alliance to Syria during the war.

The leader of the Christian Phalange party, whose then head, the Israeli-backed Bashir Gemayel, died in a 1982 bombing, said the manner of Hobeika's death reopened a grim chapter in Lebanese history.

Party chairman Karim Pakradouni said: "It takes us back 20 years, to the practices of the war."Earlier on Thursday, Israel voiced new fears that a regional conflict could flare in the Middle East after the first cross-border attacks in more than three months by Lebanese Hizbollah guerrillas backed by Syria and Iran.

After Hizbollah fired rockets and mortar bombs at Israeli military positions for the first time since October, Israel sent warplanes on raids into southern Lebanon on Wednesday.

No one was hurt and such incidents have failed in the past to ignite a wider conflict, although they have fueled tension between Israel and Hizbollah's backers -- Syria and Iran.

"Hizbollah has the potential to bring about not only a local clash on the northern border but a regional flareup," Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told army radio.

The new tension at the border could complicate U.S.-led efforts to bring peace to the Middle East after the deaths of more than 1,000 Israelis and Palestinians since the start of a Palestinian uprising against occupation in September 2000.


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