Biker hitmen strike fear into Lebanon

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UM MAHMOUD, white-scarved and angry, looked up at me from her son's bedside. "Arafat made peace with the traitors and he will pay for what he did to my son," she said. The bearded men in the Sidon hospital room - indeed all the bearded young men in the corridor outside - took much the same view.

"We are Islamic Jihad and Israel is our only enemy and Israel alone did this," a tall man in a blue T-shirt said, his eyes staring at the foreign reporter who had dared to enter the room. "Today, you see, is the third anniversary of the Israeli assassination of our leader, Fathi Shkaki."

On the face of it, Mahmoud Majzoub, his wife, Nuha, and 18-month-old son, Hussein - all Lebanese - fared better than the Palestinian leader of Islamic Jihad, who was murdered by a Mossad death squad in Malta in 1995, gunned down outside his hotel by two men on a motorcycle.

Mr Majzoub, a comparatively junior official in the radical pro-Palestinian movement in Sidon, was with his family just 20ft from his car when it was torn in half by 3kg of explosives, burning their faces and arms and hurling them across the road. "It was remote controlled," another of the bearded men said. "It must have been set off by someone high up in a building."

There are plenty of high windows on the Eastern Boulevard, and Mr Majzoub's old Volvo still lies in two parts outside his apartment, the rear end draped over a fence. When I asked a Lebanese police inspector at the scene who he thought was to blame, he shrugged his shoulders, then grinned. "Maybe this is the first message from all those Israeli-Palestinian security arrangements agreed at the Wye Plantation," he said. But I had the impression he was only half joking.

Indeed, there is not much room for humour in Sidon at the moment because Lebanon's second city has been the scene of extraordinary - and very bloody - incidents in recent days.

Only last Saturday, gunmen on a motorcycle calmly drove up to two Lebanese traffic cops in Martyrs' Square - beneath which lies the mass grave of hundreds of Sidon civilians killed in Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon - and opened fire on the two policemen. Sergeant Mourshed Saleh and Sergeant Nizar Aridi died instantly.

The Lebanese government blamed Israel - which even the good citizens of Sidon found hard to accept. Was Israel at war with the traffic police? And how to account for the attack on an off-duty Lebanese soldier at the end of Riad Solh Street last month. He, too, was shot by two men on a motorcycle, but survived.

Sidon, a largely Sunni Muslim city and home town of Lebanon's billionaire Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, plays unwilling host to tens of thousands of Palestinians in the huge Ein el-Helwe refugee camp which lies just to the east, and Islamic Jihad has many supporters there. But since the civil war ended in 1990, Sidon has known prosperity and comparative peace, albeit in a fusty way.

For Sidon - unlike the rest of Lebanon - starts its weekends on Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, and has a distinctly prudish air about it. Alcohol is banned in the city and cinema posters are regularly defaced if they show unclad women. Even the smiling blonde in the Lux soap ads beside the highway north has had her bosom "chadorised" in black paint by one of Sidon's moralisers.

Last July, however, the moralising went too far when another man on a motorcycle shot dead a Lebanese liquor salesman north of the city. The same thing happened again in August. On the first occasion, the murderer was pursued towards the Ein el-Helwe camp.

And the longer you talk to people, the nastier the stories become. At the weekend, a young Palestinian found drinking in the camp was taken from his home and flogged. Not many weeks ago, a Lebanese man wrongly accused of committing adultery was murdered. "We are all stunned by what is happening here," one of the city's doctors told me. "You must not print my name but someone is trying to create chaos here, like it was at the start of the war."

Clearly, there is a Palestinian element to this violence - an "Islamist" one at that. And Sidon has always been a place where informers and collaborators - both pro-Israeli and anti-Israeli - thrive.

So what is going on in Sidon? Back in 1983 and 1984, assassinations were two-a-penny here as rival Palestinian and Lebanese groups, some supported by Israeli intelligence agents whose army then occupied the city, wiped each other out. Some of the killers, those not on Israel's side, were Yasser Arafat's men. Others claimed to be "Islamist". Are there some ghostly networks still around, opening up old wounds in Sidon's unlovely streets?

And if so, why?

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