A former Lebanese Christian warlord who was a potential key witness in a war-crimes trial against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was killed yesterday in a massive car-bomb blast outside his home in the Lebanese capital.
Elie Hobeika, whose militia carried out the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Beirut in 1982, died instantly along with three bodyguards when a parked Mercedes packed with an estimated 22 pounds of explosive blew up beside his vehicle as he was leaving his home in the Christian suburb of Hazmieh.
The bombing was a chilling reminder for Lebanese of the dark days of the 1975-1990 civil war when car bombs were regularly used to target individuals or to cause indiscriminate carnage.
There was no claim of responsibility for the mid-morning blast, but also no shortage of possible suspects.
Mr. Hobeika carved out a bloody reputation as one the most ruthless and cunning of all Lebanon's warlords during the country's 16-year civil conflict.
Although Hobeika's lasting claim to notoriety was his role as an Israeli-backed militia commander during the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in West Beirut, most Lebanese immediately accused Israel of being behind his death.
"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," Lebanese Minister of Displaced People Marwan Hamadeh told reporters during a visit to the Jordanian capital, Amman.
In response, Arnon Perlman, an aide to Mr. Sharon said the accusation was "rubbish."
"It's a complete lie," he said. The connection is a law suit filed last June against the Israeli prime minister by survivors of the Sabra and Shatila massacre which is being heard in a court in Belgium.
Sharon was Israeli defense minister in 1982 and the architect of Israel's invasion of Lebanon in June that year. The 1983 Kahan Commission, an Israeli government inquiry into the Sabra and Shatila massacre, concluded that Sharon bore "personal responsibility" for the slaughter, in which at least 1,000 Palestinians perished.
The Belgian court announced on Wednesday that it would decide on March 6 whether the trial should proceed.
If it goes ahead, which is looking increasingly likely, Sharon could have an international arrest warrant issued against him on charges of crimes against humanity.
Hobeika had said that he was willing to travel to Belgium and testify in court against the Israeli prime minister if asked.
Last July, Hobeika broke his characteristic silence over the Sabra and Shatila massacre to plead innocent of any involvement, claiming to have documents and tapes that proved he was not in the vicinity of the camps at the time.
In a secret meeting in Beirut with two visiting Belgian senators on Tuesday, Hobeika reportedly informed them that he feared for his life.
One of the senators, Josy Dubie said in Brussels yesterday that when he asked Hobeika if he felt threatened, he replied: "I feel threatened. I have revelations to make."
"I then asked why he did not make these revelations now," the senator said, "and he replied to me: 'I am saving them for the trial.' "
Several published accounts of the circumstances surrounding the massacre place Hobeika at the Israeli Army command post in a six-story building overlooking Shatila during the slaughter.
An Israeli officer later testified to the Kahan Commission that a Lebanese militiaman had asked Hobeika over the radio what he should do with 50 Palestinian women and children that had been rounded up in the camp.
Hobeika's reply was: "This is the last time you're going to ask me a question like that, you know exactly what to do." According to the Kahan commission report, his instruction was followed by "raucous laughter," leaving no doubt in the mind of the Israeli witness that the prisoners were to be executed.
After Israel retreated from Beirut in 1983 and established a self-styled security zone in south Lebanon two years later, Hobeika switched sides, dumping the Israelis for Syria. The move pitted Hobeika against rival Christian warlords opposed to Syrian hegemony in Lebanon in the late 1980s.
But his alliance with Syria also guaranteed his security and - after the conflict ended under a Damascus-brokered compromise in 1990 - a succession of ministerial portfolios in several post-civil war governments.
After losing his parliamentary seat in the 2000 elections, Hobeika quit politics and devoted his time to his many business interests.