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Sharon witness

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The man who would testify against Sharon is blown up. Was this another targeted killing?
By Robert Fisk in Beirut
25 January 2002

Who on earth would want to murder the key witness for the prosecution in a war crimes indictment against the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon?

Why would anyone want to car-bomb the former Lebanese Phalangist militia leader and government minister Elie Hobeika in Beirut less than two days after he agreed to give evidence against Mr Sharon in a Belgian court, which may try the Israeli leader for the murder of up to 1,700 Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in September, 1982?

Elie Hobeika, of course, will not be giving evidence against Mr Sharon. His body in bits, some bones blackened by fire were all that remained of Lebanon's most hated man yesterday, scattered 50 metres from his burning Range Rover.

Call it a "targeted killing"; which, by chance, is how the Israelis describe their death squad execution of Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza. The man who led his murderers into the Palestinian camps on Israel's orders 19 years ago was dead to the jubilation of millions of Palestinians. "Our blood was not in vain," they screamed yesterday in the refugee camp of Bourj el-Barajneh.

When I reached the cramped Beirut Christian suburb of Hazmiyeh a few minutes later, all that was left was Hobeika's smouldering, shattered Range Rover, a fiercely burning Mercedes in which the bomb had been placed and carbonised skeletons.

It needed at least four men to assassinate Hobeika one outside his home 100 metres away to alert the bombers, another to have guarded the car bomb, two more to have "line of sight" and press the detonation switch.

Within hours, Belgian lawyers seeking to indict Mr Sharon the Israeli defence had only finished giving its reasons for opposing a trial on Wednesday expressed their "profound shock" at Hobeika's murder.

"Mr Hobeika had several times expressed his wish to assist the Belgian inquiry on the massacres at Sabra and Chatila," a statement from the lawyers said. "His determination to do so was reported widely on the eve of his assassination. The elimination of the key protagonist who offered to assist with the inquiry is an obvious attempt to undermine our case."

In this area of Christian east Beirut, Hizbollah militia men or Syrian agents would have a hard task to set up such a murderous ambush. Which was why I couldn't find a single Lebanese who didn't believe Israel was behind the killing. "Just watch who gets murdered next," a policeman muttered. "Relatives will want revenge and we'll be able to find out who the murderers were."

Less than two days before the killing, at 5pm on Tuesday, to be exact, Hobeika had met two Belgian senators, Josy Dubie and Vincent van Quickenborne, in east Beirut, agreeing to be a witness at any trial for the Sabra and Chatila massacre. The meeting was supposed to be secret: Hobeika reportedly told the Belgians he had been threatened with death, but it was leaked to the Lebanese press. This may have been Hobeika's death certificate.

Just before 10am yesterday, he was driving his blue Range Rover from his home on Marroukoz Street with his three bodyguards, Dmitri Ajram, Walid Zein and Faris Suedan, when a white Mercedes 280 parked in a basement garage level with the road blew up. An estimated 100 kilos of explosives blasted Hobeika's vehicle across the narrow highway, killing all four men instantly.

Arshalouis Katchadourian, an Armenian woman living across the road, ran to her window to see if her grandmother Verikine had survived in her apartment above the car bomb. "First I heard the explosion," she said. "Then I saw a fireball and so much smoke. But there was a man with a Kalashnikov firing lots of bullets. I thought 'someone is going to kill him'. But who was he?" Nobody knows.

Charbel Moussalem, whose sister was wounded on his apartment balcony, says he saw only smoke and fire enveloping the building above the car bomb. "Elie Hobeika often drove down this road to his office," he said. "Not every day. But we knew him." So did the murderers.

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