Lebanon sees bid to disturb the peace

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A NEW TALE of spying and skulduggery is unfolding in Lebanon, complete with mysterious Israeli intelligence officers, Palestinian assassins, secret meetings with Mossad and hidden timing devices to detonate a bomb, which killed the brother of the man behind the kidnapping of most Western hostages here in the late 1980s.

"General Danny", described by Lebanese government investigators as a senior Israeli intelligence operative in Cyprus, is said to have recruited the Palestinian Ahmad al-Halak, who murdered Fouad Mougnieh - killing three innocent civilians at the same time - with a 50kg bomb just before Christmas.

The detailed story is emerging at a time when the Lebanese are becoming distinctly troubled about their immediate future. Many now believe the "Middle East peace process" to be in terminal decline, and the funds that poured into Lebanon a year ago in theexpectation of a lucrative peace treaty with Israel have almost dried up. The Prime Minister upon whose future the finances of the country largely depend - the multi-millionaire Rafiq Hariri - has been receiving treatment for a heart condition in America, while two other members of his cabinet have been hospitalised in Beirut.

To make matters worse, the war between the Israeli occupation army in southern Lebanon and the Hizbollah guerrilla movement is becoming ever more violent; last week, UN officers reported that the Israelis has used cluster bombs in the south for the firsttime since their 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Against this ominous background, the latest assassination saga bears disturbing parallels to the court indictment last year of Lebanese accused of bombing a Maronite church north of Beirut, killing 11 worshippers; in both cases, the accused are alleged to have been recruited by Israeli intelligence officers and given explosives training in northern Israel.

According to Lebanese military investigators, Ahmed al-Halak, a 42-year-old former PLO officer who was himself once the object of an assassination attempt in Sidon, was originally recruited into the Israeli intelligence service last June to locate the bodies of Israeli soldiers killed during the Lebanon war; only later, they claim, was he asked to observe and then murder Fouad Mougnieh, a senior Hizbollah official and brother of Imad Mougnieh, whose Islamic Jihad movement held Terry Waite, John McCarthy, Terry Anderson and most other Western captives in Lebanon.

The planning for Mougnieh's assassination came at the end of a year in which Hizbollah had made significant military inroads against the Israeli army in southern Lebanon, killing 19 of its soldiers, wounding scores of others and sending Israeli troops fleeing from one of their artillery positions in the region. Al-Halak's search for the bodies of missing Israeli soldiers - several of which may be in Hizbollah's hands - was allegedly undertaken with the help of his wife Hanan, a fellow Palestinian calledWasiq Nasser, and Tewfiq Nasser, a Lebanese from the southern town of Nabitiyeh. By late autumn, however, al-Halak was reportedly ordered to kidnap Fouad Mougnieh and transport him to Israel's occupation zone.

Al-Halak subsequently made drawings of Mougnieh's tile factory in the southern suburbs of Beirut and sent these plans with his wife to "General Danny" in Cyprus in November. On 7 December, al-Halak was called to Israel, where he was introduced to other Israeli officers - codenamed "Mike" and "Tommy" - and given 12 days' training in the use of an electronic explosive device to be fitted into a black leather case and detonated outside Mougnieh's factory.

On 21 December, al-Halak drove his brown Chevrolet to the southern suburbs of Beirut and paid a social call on the man he was about to murder, shaking hands with Mougnieh before returning to his car, setting the timing device of the bomb beside the wall and driving away at speed. In the subsequent explosion, Mougnieh was killed along with a woman passerby, a Syrian street worker and another civilian. Israel denied all involvement in the killings, but al-Halak, say the Lebanese authorities, made his escape to the Israeli occupation zone, telling his wife and Tewfiq Nasser to travel to Israel via Cyprus two days before Christmas. The two were arrested at Beirut airport while trying to board a Middle East Airlines flight to Larnaca.

Hanan al-Halak and the two Nassers are now in custody. Al-Halak has disappeared. The Lebanese, however, have noted that the case has been brought only days before a group of senior Lebanese security officers are to visit Washington in an attempt to persuade US officials to lift the travel ban on Americans wishing to visit Lebanon. The ban, imposed after Imad Mougnieh's alleged involvement in the 1985 hijacking of a TWA jet to Beirut, was supposedly imposed to protect US citizens from kidnapping.

So is there any connection between the Mougnieh murder investigation and the delegation's visit to Washington? Does the sudden arrest of three of the alleged culprits show that Lebanon is now able to impose law and order - and that Israel is now to blamefor the dangers which foreigners may face in visiting Lebanon?

The Americans, who have not barred their citizens from travelling to Egypt and Algeria, have shown no interest in changing their prohibition here, even though the Lebanese war is over - and have, according to the Lebanese, refused an invitation to inspect security operations at Beirut airport. The US government seems determined to lift its ban only when the Lebanese government totally disarms Hizbollah - an act which would, of course, make Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon a good deal more comfortable.