Assassin 'told guards bullets were fakes'

The aftermath: Prime Minister's driver tells of confusion surrounding shooting as Peres promises to continue peace process as talks go ahead on Israeli withdrawal from West Bank town
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The Independent Online

Jerusalem and foreign staff

The confusion bordering on farce that surrounded the last minutes of Yitzhak Rabin was described publicly for the first time yesterday by his driver.

In an interview with Israel's Channel Two television, Menachem Damati described how the gunman, Yigal Amir, shouted "It's nothing, it's nothing. They are not real bullets, they're fake," as he raised his arm to shoot the Prime Minister. According to Mr Damati, no one around Rabin seemed to do anything other than believe what Amir said. A lone security man pushed Rabin into the back of the car, and then Mr Damati drove off with Rabin and the guard. It was only after he had driven for about 20 or 30 metres that he heard Rabin groan.

He asked him if he had been hit, and Rabin answered yes. It was then that Mr Damati changed course for Ichilov hospital. On the way to the hospital Mr Damati asked Rabin if he was in pain, and Rabin said that his back hurt. Then he said, "Don't worry, it's not so bad, not so bad." These were Rabin's last words. "As he finished saying 'not so bad' his head fell," said Mr Damati. "The bodyguard was screaming at me, 'drive, drive!' " Then the guard said that he too had been hit.

As the car approached the hospital, its progress was halted by a police cordon. The driver had to stop and enlist the help of a policeman to help them get to the hospital. The policeman got in the car and helped clear a route.

At no time was any mobile communications equipment used, according to Mr Damati, so that when the car arrived at the hospital no personnel had been alerted. Mr Damati saw a hospital security guard and shouted to him to get a stretcher. The man returned with a stretcher and - with his own security guard taking his head and Mr Damati lifting him from the back - Rabin was lifted on to the stretcher and carried into the hospital.

"I screamed hysterically, 'It's the Prime Minister! It's the Prime Minister! Take care of him please,' " said Mr Damati. Only then did doctors appear. Mr Rabin and the security guard were taken away for treatment, and Mr Damati was left alone. Israeli and PLO officers met in the northern town of Jenin yesterday to work out details of the handover of the first West Bank town to come under Palestinian self-rule since Rabin reached agreement on the latest stage of the Oslo accords. Shimon Peres, the acting prime minister, said: "I shall continue the process of peace that we have started."

Meanwhile Rabin's widow, Leah, has directly accused the main right-wing party, Likud, and its leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, of stirring up hatred which led to her husband's death. She said that at the funeral she did not want to accept Mr Netanyahu's condolences, but shook his hand anyway because she did not want to make a scene.

"Yes, surely I blame them," Mrs Rabin said at her home. "If you ever heard their speeches at the Knesset [Parliament] you would understand what I mean. They were very, very violent in their expressions: We are selling the country down the drain. There will be no Israel after this peace agreement."

Mr Netanyahu said he did not take what Mrs Rabin said to heart because she was in deep grief. He added: "These attempts now to make political hay out of this . . . are like asking whether Lee Harvey Oswald was a Republican or a Democrat and then blaming the party." Other Likud leaders say that 50 per cent of Israelis were with them in opposing the Oslo accords, but Labour supporters have asked why posters showing Mr Rabin's face superimposed on a gun target were allowed at Likud rallies.

After talks with John Major, one of the many foreign leaders who attended Rabin's funeral on Monday, Mr Peres said that the withdrawal of Israeli troops from West Bank Arab towns would go ahead on schedule. The pullout is to be largely complete by the end of the year. Israel has also eased the closure of the West Bank and Gaza.

Yossi Beilin, the Economics Minister, discouraged speculation that Mr Peres might seek to bring forward the general election, due next October, to capitalise on the sympathy for Rabin and his policies.

Future of the right, page 17