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Thursday, 24 January, 2002, 23:35 GMT
Warlord death 'link with Sharon case'
Lebanese security forces at the scene of Thursday's car bomb
Police picked over the wreckage of the cars in Hazimiyeh
Israel and Lebanon are at loggerheads over the death on Thursday of former militia leader Elie Hobeika who was killed with five others in a massive car bomb in east Beirut.

Lebanese officials have implicated Israel in the assassination, saying it wanted prevent Hobeika from testifying against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a Belgian court case about the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres in 1982.

From our point of view, we have no link to this subject at all, and this is not worthy of a comment

Israeli PM Ariel Sharon
Interior minister Elias Murr said there was "confirmation" of Israeli involvement, although he did not elaborate further.

Mr Sharon responded that Israel had no link to the killing, saying the allegation was "not worthy of comment".

Meanwhile, a previously unknown group calling itself Lebanese for a Free and Independent Lebanon claimed responsibility for the bombing, branding Hobeika a "Syrian agent", an apparent reference to his transfer of allegiance towards Damascus after Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war.

Elie Hobeika in 1985
Israel said Hobeika ordered the 1982 massacres
During the war, Hobeika had been leader of the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian militia that was allied to Israel and which, in September 1982, slaughtered hundreds of Palestinian refugees in their camps as they were surrounded by Israeli forces.

Days before his death, Mr Hobeika said he had important revelations to make about the killings in the Belgian case - in which Mr Sharon is being accused of crimes against humanity.

Mr Sharon resigned as Israeli defence minister after an Israeli commission of inquiry established that he bore indirect responsibility for the 1982 massacres for "having disregarded the danger of acts of vengeance" by the militias when he allowed them into the camps.

Scene of devastation

Family and friends of Mr Hobeika visited the scene of the bombing during the day, but correspondents say few are mourning the death of such a controversial and divisive figure on the Lebanese political scene.

Palestinian refugee listening to news of Hobeika's death in Sabra refugee camp
Few Palestinians will be moved by Hobeika's death
Municipal workers cleared away the wreckage at nightfall, removing broken glass and debris from nearby buildings in the Hazimiyeh district of Christian east Beirut.

The blast - from 10 kilogrammes of TNT packed in a parked Mercedes - was so strong it set fire to surrounding buildings. Mr Hobeika's body flew 50 metres down the road while one of his bodyguards was blown onto a second floor balcony.

The bomb, thought to have been set off by remote control, went off shortly after Mr Hobeika and his entourage had driven off for a scuba diving expedition.

Neighbour Assad Khairallah said he saw the explosion from across the street, where he and his wife were having coffee on their balcony.

"Fires broke out in buildings, cars flew in the air and caught fire, people screamed in the buildings," Mr Khairallah said.

'Violent settlement of conflict'

A Belgian appeals court is expected to rule in March whether Mr Sharon should stand trial for the 1982 massacres. The final pre-trial hearing about the admissibility of the case was held on Wednesday.

Bader al-Reef, mother of former Lebanese Christian warlord Elie Hobeika
Hobeika's mother, Bader al-Reef, visited the scene
The legal team for 23 survivors of the massacres suing Mr Sharon in Belgium confirmed that Mr Hobeika had been a key protagonist who had offered to assist in the case.

The lawyers said it appeared his killing was an attempt to undermine the case.

"In closing our pleadings yesterday before the Court of Appeal, we repeated that the victims are engaged in a judicial procedure which jars with the tradition of violent settlement of the conflicts in the region," the lawyers said in an statement on their website.

"Those behind [Hobeika's] assassination clearly follow a logic of war which seeks to prevent the pursuit of an alternative of non-violence, law, and justice."

The BBC's Kim Ghattas
"A lot of people were angry with Mr Hobeika"
Lebanese analyst Nadim Shehadi
"Such killings are not part of the Lebanese political scene"
Belgian Senator Vincent Van Quickenborne
"This is a major blow to the case"
See also:

24 Jan 02 | Middle East
Lebanon's cocktail of hatreds
24 Jan 02 | Middle East
Flashback: Sabra and Shatila massacres
24 Jan 02 | Middle East
Profile: Elie Hobeika
28 Nov 01 | Middle East
Court postpones Sharon ruling
10 Aug 01 | Middle East
Crackdown on anti-Syria Lebanese
08 Aug 01 | Middle East
Lebanon rounds up Christian opposition
18 Jun 01 | Middle East
Israelis outraged by BBC documentary
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