Carlos myth stalks the city of hired guns: In the ruins of Beirut, Robert Fisk discovers enigmatic traces of the clandestine days of the Jackal

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WE WERE lunching beside the ruins of the old St Georges Hotel when a Lebanese friend, the wife of a Beirut merchant, approached us. 'So you've got Carlos,' she said. 'You' meant me, us, the West. But her small daughter was puzzled. 'Who's Carlos?' she asked. And quick as a flash, the woman, a Christian who could not be more Westernised, replied: 'He was a member of the resistance.'

And there it was, the same Beirut ambivalence we came across all over town in the hot and steamy 24 hours we had spent searching for the footprints of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez. Even after the portly, middle-aged murderer had been locked up in Paris, his myth was still alive in the city he knew so well in the early 80s, before the suicide bombers of Islam took over from the hired guns of Arab 'nationalism'.

Ask about Carlos in Beirut this week and you learn a lot about the Middle East. We had breakfasted with an Algerian friend, a doctor, safe in Lebanon from the inferno of her own country. 'You will not believe how popular Carlos was with us,' she remarked, almost casually. 'He was a personal friend of (President) Boumedienne. He came once to Algiers to have surgery and they put him in the Mustapha Hospital in the centre of the city for the operation. And hundreds - thousands - of Algerians came to the hospital calling his name, worshipping him. They had to bring in guards.'

Deep in the narrow alleyways of a Palestinian camp in west Beirut, a fighter of Carlos's generation had a question. 'Carlos - do you think he really exists? Don't you think he's just one of these media creatures you people invent - like Abu Nidal?' We chatted for a while, his rusting fan fighting a hopeless battle with the oven-like heat. And then there slipped out one of those little elliptical stories that we heard all over Beirut in the hours after Carlos' arrest.

'In 1982, Carlos arrived in Lebanon. We heard he had brought some ETA men for training. Then the Israelis invaded and he was trapped, right here in Beirut. You know, there were a lot of strange people here then - we used to have two IRA men proof-reading the English edition of Fatah magazine - and Carlos was stuck with the rest of them. But they got away on the boats.' The boats? The ships that carried Yasser Arafat and his PLO guerrillas into exile, that left Beirut protected by US warships? A thin smile was the only reply. It was like a bottle containing a message, retrieved from the sea only to fall from one's hands as one pulled at the cork.

What was the message? It could not be found on the Beirut police files. Their computer showed that no Ilich Ramirez Sanchez had ever been pulled in for 'international terrorism', murder or even just shooting the lights. In an east European embassy the same ignorance persisted. 'You know, some of us were here in Carlos' time and we've all been asking each other if we met him,' one grey-haired diplomat mused. 'And none of us did. When the Soviets had their diplomats kidnapped (in 1985), the KGB pulled all their contacts out of the files, everyone whom they might get in touch with. And Carlos was not among them.'

A Lebanese in an old clothing store in south Beirut says: 'It was in 1976, the beginning of the war and this man would come in, the same guy as in the early picture of Carlos - a bit chubby, he spoke Arabic like a foreigner, he worked for the PFLP - and he would order ten pairs of jeans at a time or ten T-shirts. Then one day they told me he had died. But I didn't believe it. You know why? Because the PFLP used to put up martyrs' posters saying 'these commandos died fighting Zionists in Palestine'. And then I saw a man in one of those posters, walking around alive and healthy. It was the PFLP's way of 'cleaning' their men, of moving them around.'

As usual this week, Lebanon's private television stations re-transmitted Western news-casts. In every Lebanese station - independently and without any censorship - the staff cut out precisely those sections of each report on Carlos which suggested that he had spent a decade of retirement in Damascus. This is what the Lebanese call 'auto-censure', a mystical, immemorial practice which protects viewers from gratuitously untrue remarks about friendly nations.

And then suddenly, on Wednesday night, in the muggy dusk, in a grimy street just off the southern suburbs, in a dusty, shuttered house, the bottle with the message was briefly, fearfully uncorked. Palestinian friends had given us the address. And there sat a nervous, frightened man with kind, slightly haunted eyes. Carlos, he admitted, had been a 'good friend'. And he had talked about Carlos, years ago. And then, shortly afterwards, someone had stepped up to him outside his shuttered house, and fired a bullet into his brain. 'I still have a hole here,' the man said, his finger tracing the delicate trajectory of that long-ago bullet as it passed behind his ear and smashed into his head. 'It was a very big hole - look, you can still see where the bullet went in. I was lucky. I survived. Who did it? That is a dangerous question.' And his eyes glittered in a friendly, frightened way as he stood up and walked out of his own front door, leaving us sitting in the house behind him.