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Car Bomb Kills Figure in 1982 Lebanese Massacre
NEIL MacFARQUHAR . NY Times . 25 january 2002

A policeman covered the body of one of former Lebanese minister Elias Hobeika's bodyguards. Hobeika and three other people were killed in a car bombing in Beirut on Thursday.
Fire engines arrive at the scene of a car explosion in which former Lebanese minister Elias Hobeika died.

CAIRO, Jan. 24 — A powerful car bomb in a Beirut suburb today killed Elie Hobeika, a former Christian militia chieftain whose gunmen carried out the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps.

A sedan rigged with explosives blew apart near Mr. Hobeika's home in the Beirut suburb of Hazmiyeh just as his sport utility vehicle went by. The explosion killed three other people, including two bodyguards, wounded six more, and ignited several other vehicles and buildings near the Beirut-Damascus highway.

There was no confirmed claim of responsibility.

Lebanese officials quickly blamed Israel in the attack, and Israeli officials quickly rejected the accusations. Mr. Hobeika had just this week reaffirmed that he would testify in a case initiated by Palestinians in a Belgian court last June against the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, accusing him of war crimes in connection with the massacre.

Mr. Hobeika, 45, was the intelligence chief of the pro-Israel Lebanese Forces militia that was held responsible for the slayings of hundreds of men, women and children in the Palestinian refugee camps in September 1982. An Israeli commission of inquiry found that Mr. Sharon, then the defense minister and architect of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, was among those who bore "indirect responsibility" for the massacre.

Mr. Sharon today dismissed the Lebanese allegations about Mr. Hobeika's assassination.

"I am simply saying, from our point of view, we have no link to this subject at all, and this is not worthy of a comment," Mr. Sharon told reporters.

A previously unknown group calling itself Lebanese for a Free and Independent Lebanon sent a fax to a Western news agency office in Cyprus, accusing Mr. Hobeika of being a Syrian agent and saying he was killed to protest Syria's influence on Lebanon. There was no way to authenticate the claim, and other anti- Syrian organizations in Lebanon said they had never heard of the group.

The list of those who might want to see Mr. Hobeika gone is a virtual who's who of players in the 15-year Lebanese civil war that ended in 1990. His foes include some former members of his own right-wing militia, as well as the Israelis and the Palestinians.

"The enemies of Hobeika are everywhere," said Hazem Saghiyeh, a columnist for the London-based newspaper Al Hayat.

The assassination cast a pall over Beirut, reviving memories of the civil war despite residents' striving for years to put that pain behind them.

Over the years, Mr. Hobeika had given various explanations of the killings, at one time saying he was not there and at another that he was just following orders. The Lebanese Forces militia had received training and arms from Israel, which had stationed troops near the camps.

An appeals court in Belgium, which implemented a sweeping international human rights law in 1999, is expected to rule by early March whether it has jurisdiction in the case.

A group of Belgian senators who met with Mr. Hobeika this week quoted him as saying he was "terrified" of the consequences of the trial for the Christian community in Lebanon. But he said that his testimony would confirm his own innocence.

His death "was a major blow for the case because he is an important witness," Vincent Van Quickenborne, one of the senators, said in a television interview. He said Mr. Hobeika told the delegation that he had documents that would prove his innocence. He did not say he would accuse Mr. Sharon, the senator said.

Lebanese officials suggested the timing of the killing indicated that Israel was the prime suspect.

"My initial evaluation is that 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," said Marwan Hamadeh, the Lebanese minister for displaced people, speaking in Jordan.

Aside from the possibility that Palestinians might have sought revenge for what transpired in the camps, Mr. Hobeika was also considered a traitor by members of his former militia for switching sides and allying himself with Syria during the war. Some analysts also suggested that the Christian community would not want their role in slaying Palestinians and others dredged up.

After the war, Mr. Hobeika benefited from a 1991 general amnesty for all those involved in the fighting. He won election to parliament in 1992 and again in 1996 but lost in 2000. He held various ministerial posts before leaving the government to become a businessman. He had been mentioned as a possible presidential contender.

A few years ago, one of his bodyguards wrote a sensational biography of Mr. Hobeika, accusing him among other things of having sexual adventures with wives of fellow Lebanese politicians and cabinet ministers.

"He was a typical warlord in the worse sense of the word," said Mr. Saghiyeh, the Al Hayat columnist. "He had nothing to do with ideology, with ideas, with causes. It was just killing for the sake of killing. He could move and change his alliances just like that. This guy was born to be killed this way."

Mr. Hobeika had acknowledged that he might face trouble because of his wartime role.

"I think that somehow I have burned my future, because of what I have done in the days of war," he said in a 1993 interview. "I still have to wear the burdens of my actions during the war, and I have done a lot of bad acts."