A turncoat bodyguard assassinated PLO leader Yasser Arafat's two senior deputies and a security officer Monday night at a house outside Tunis, Palestinian officials said. The killer held two relatives of one of the victims hostage for six hours before his arrest, they said.
A senior Palestinian commander in Tunis said the killer is a former member of Abu Nidal's terrorist PLO faction, sworn enemies of Arafat. But "we still don't know who he's working for," the commander said. "He may also be working for the Israelis."
The assassin, armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, took the hostages after killing Salah Khalaf, the Palestine Liberation Organization's second in command and its counterintelligence chief, who is better known by his nom de guerre , Abu Iyad; Hael Abdel Hamid, the PLO's security chief, known as Abu Loul; and Abu Mohammed Omari, Abu Iyad's aide, sources in Tunis said.
Six hours later, PLO guerrillas and Tunisian police stormed Abu Loul's house, where the shootings occurred, arrested the assailant and freed the two hostages--Abu Loul's wife and daughter--unharmed, the commander said.
The death of Abu Iyad left Arafat as the sole survivor among the three original founders of Fatah, the first PLO group and its largest faction.
Abu Iyad was the alleged mastermind of the Black September murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. He had cultivated a moderate position in recent years.
Both he and Abu Loul were in their late 50s.
At the United Nations, the PLO's representative blamed Israeli agents for the killings, which he compared to the April, 1988, assassination of another PLO founder, Khalil Wazir. That killing also took place in Tunisia.
"It doesn't take a genius" to figure out who killed the two leaders, said the PLO representative, Nasser Kidwa.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens today denied any Israeli involvement in the killings.
"Definitely no. We had nothing to do with it," Arens said on ABC's "Nightline" program.
"I think it was probably the work of some dissident faction of the PLO," said Arens, speaking from Tel Aviv.
The PLO commander identified the gunman only as Hamza, Abu Loul's bodyguard. The violence occurred in Abu Loul's house in the Tunis suburb of Marsa, said the commander, who was interviewed by telephone from Nicosia, Cyprus.
Arafat was on his way from Amman to Paris for talks on the gulf crisis when the shootings occurred, but called off his trip, said Daniel Bernard, a French Foreign Ministry spokesman.
Arafat had planned to promote a French-Palestinian initiative in which Iraq would pull its troops out of Kuwait in exchange for promises of a future Mideast conference on the Palestinian situation, an aide said. Arafat had flown to Amman earlier Monday from Baghdad.
The Palestinian commander said Hamza has long ties to the Libyan-backed Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal but quit the group and began working as Abu Loul's bodyguard six months ago.
"He may still have ties to Abu Nidal, but he may also be working for the Israelis," said the commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
There has never been an official claim of responsibility for Wazir's 1988 slaying. Israeli sources said the Mossad intelligence service and the Israeli navy killed Wazir. Known as Abu Jihad, Wazir was in charge of PLO security and was at the time the main PLO figure behind the uprising that has raged in the Israeli-occupied territories since December, 1987.
The commander said Monday night's episode began when Hamza grabbed Abu Loul's wife and daughter. He held them at gunpoint as he stormed into the room where the PLO officials were meeting and opened fire, he said.
Through a window, he shouted at bewildered Tunisian and PLO security men outside the house that he would kill the hostages unless he was given safe passage to the airport and a plane to fly him out, the commander said. He did not say where he wanted to go, he added.
Abu Iyad, a native of Haifa, Israel, had topped Israel's most-wanted list as one of the suspected brains behind Black September.
But U.S. diplomats held conversations with Abu Iyad in Tunisia during a brief period of direct U.S.-PLO communications in 1989.
A historic leader closely associated with Arafat in reviving Palestinian nationalism in the 1960s, Abu Iyad held no official post within the PLO.
Abu Loul was the PLO's "interior minister," partly responsible for organizing the Palestinian uprising.
Omari assisted Abu Iyad in running Fatah's security services.
During the 1956 Middle East War, Wazir, Arafat and Abu Iyad met as students in Egypt. They later were reunited in Kuwait and officially founded Fatah in 1965 as an underground group dedicated to regaining the land Palestinians lost to Israel. Fatah was to become the core of the Palestinian movement.
Abu Nidal, whose real name is Sabri Banna, split from Fatah in 1974. He is widely sought by police agencies for his alleged role in terrorist attacks, including the massacre at the Vienna and Rome airports in December, 1985.
Abu Nidal has vowed to kill Arafat for seeking a negotiated settlement with the Israelis. Arafat, in turn, has sentenced Abu Nidal to death.