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Two arrested in Beirut fatal bombing

Hobeika's coffin
Hobeika's coffin is carried to the Maronite church in east Beirut on Friday  

BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- Police have detained two men in connection with a car bomb explosion that killed former Lebanese Christian militia leader Elie Hobeika and three of his bodyguards, Lebanese authorities said Saturday.

The bombing took place Thursday in the suburbs of Beirut, government sources said, the first major car bombing in Lebanon for eight years.

The arrests come as the burials of Hobeika and two of the killed bodyguards were to take place.

Hobeika, 45, was best-known for his role as commander of Christian Lebanese Forces at the time the militia massacred up to 2,000 Palestinian men, women and children in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Muslim west Beirut in 1982. The year before, Israel had invaded Lebanon in a drive to push Palestine Liberation Organization fighters out of the country.

Hobeika's coffin was expected to be taken from a church in east Beirut, where mourners have been filing past since Friday, to his home village of Baskinta, 40 kilometers northeast of Beirut, for burial.

The third bodyguard killed in the explosion was buried in Beirut on Friday.

A previously unknown group, Lebanese for a Free and Independent Lebanon, has claimed responsibility for killing Hobeika.

Lebanese government sources have called the killing a "targeted assassination," and several Lebanese officials speculated that Israel was involved in an attempt to prevent Hobeika from testifying in legal proceedings in Brussels, Belgium, against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The Belgian courts, operating on a law that allows war crime victims to file charges in Belgium regardless of their nationalities, are considering a case brought by survivors of the killings against Sharon, who was Israel's defense minister at the time of the refugee camp atrocities.

The Israeli government denied any involvement in Hobeika's death. Israeli officials have suggested Syria as likely to have been responsible.

In the 1982 massacres, the militiamen went into the refugee camps after their leader, president-elect Bashir Gemayel, was assassinated in a bombing. That bombing was initially blamed on the Palestinians, but later evidence showed Syria, which opposed Gemayel's cooperation with Israel, was behind the attack.

After the 15-year Lebanese civil war, Hobeika served in several Cabinet positions, including minister of energy, a job he left in 1998.

Hobeika's last public appearance was at the end of last year when he said he would be "telling the truth" about his role in the Sabra and Shatila atrocities, saying he was not guilty of the crimes committed. He also had said he was willing to go to the Belgian courts.

It is alleged that Israeli forces provided shielding while the militia conducted the massacres to clear out what were being called Palestinian terrorists from the camps.

An official Israeli inquiry found Sharon indirectly responsible for the killings, saying he did nothing to stop the militias from entering the camps, despite fears the militiamen might seek revenge for the death of Gemayel the previous day. As a result, Sharon was forced to resign.

The Belgian appeals court is expected to rule March 6 on whether Sharon should stand trial.




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