The many deaths of public enemy Nidal

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The Independent Online
OUTSIDE ABU NIDAL'S fly-blown office in the Mar Elias Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, two middle-aged men shrugged their shoulders. Same old story, they said. No, Abu Nidal is not dead and not in an Egyptian hospital bed. But they did not say it with quite the usual certainty. It is the fifth time we have been told of the ruthless Palestinian killer's imminent demise. So how many lives does a gunman have?

Abu Nidal was declared "America's Public Enemy No 1" by Colonel Oliver North in the late Eighties - a title he lost at the weekend when President Bill Clinton awarded it to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. But at least in Abu Nidal's case it had the merit of evidence to back up the claim. His real name is Sabri el-Banna, and he leads - or led - an execution squad that attacked Israeli airline ticket counters at Rome and Vienna airports in 1985, bombed a PanAm jet on the ground at Rome in 1973 and, possibly, was responsible for bombing a TWA airliner over the Aegean in 1986, killing 88 people.

His men murdered Jewish worshippers in synagogues and, by trying to assassinate the Israeli ambassador to London, touched off the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, in which more than 17,000 civilians died in air raids and bombardments by Israel. The latter claimed that the would-be killers were from the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The PLO said it was Abu Nidal, then working for Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The Israelis were wrong and Mr Arafat was right, but the world forgot the fact.

So where is Abu Nidal? Rumoured until three years ago to be living in Libya, he is now said to be comatose in a Cairo hospital. Nonsense, say the Egyptian security police. "He is not here," Egypt's Foreign Minister, Amr Mahmoud Moussa, said yesterday.

In Beirut and the Palestinian-controlled areas of Gaza and the West Bank, word has it that the Egyptians are preparing to let Abu Nidal die of cancer before announcing to the world that they can confirm the death of one of its most wanted killers.

Palestinian officials in Beirut suspect that there have indeed been security negotiations in the past few weeks between Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. The handover of Abu Nidal to Egypt by the Libyans - allegedly negotiated by President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia - might help to end United Nations sanctions against Libya. In this context, the Anglo-American offer to let Libya's two Lockerbie bomb suspects stand trial in The Hague makes more sense. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, it seems, is being allowed, slowly, to come back in from the cold.

But conspiracy theories are part of life in the Middle East and there is so far not a shred of proof that Abu Nidal is alive, let alone dying. Three years ago, he was reported killed in a vicious battle within his Fatah Revolutionary Council, which has at various stages been given sanctuary in Iraq, Syria and Libya. In Lebanon, some of his henchmen fell victim to counter-revolutionary purges and were buried alive with only a metal pipe giving them air. Fellow gunmen would pour water and juice down the pipe into the buried man's mouth until execution orders arrived from Libya. Then they would fire a single bullet down the pipe and fill it in with earth.

Sabri el-Banna was born in Jaffa in present-day Israel and would now be 61 - if he is alive. His nom de guerre means Father of Struggle, but PLO officials have long suspected that he has worked for anyone but the Palestinians. They believe that Israel as well as Iraq and Libya have used his services, especially in attacks against Yasser Arafat's officials before the 1993 Oslo agreement. Abu Nidal's grand-nephews, Nasseredin and Omar el-Banna, fell victim to a roadside shooting in Beirut last year. They were killed by a gunman who caught them - unusually for anyone living in Lebanon - stopped at a traffic light.

Death is (or was) truly Abu Nidal's business. Even in Cold War Eastern Europe, he would be permitted to talk only to Polish or East German intelligence officers. Communist apparatchiks and fraternal delegations were kept well away.

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