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Assassination of Lebanese warlord sets fingers pointing

Elie Hobeika had planned to testify against Ariel Sharon about the 1982 massacre of Palestinians.

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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.

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