Kidnap death revives ghosts of Lebanon war

When Ramzi Irani was kidnapped in broad daylight in the centre of Beirut two weeks ago, few cared.

Yesterday, they cared a lot after the right-wing Christian's decomposing body was found in the boot of his own car in a run-down area of hotels and bars in the west of the city.

Just a day after the Palestinian guerrilla leader Jihad Jibril was blown to pieces in west Beirut, the ghosts of Lebanon's war had returned to haunt the country for the second time in 24 hours.

The story of this latest murder is as inelegant as it is gruesome. For when Ramzi Irani disappeared close to the Phoenicia hotel in Beirut, it seemed that only his family cared. He had called his wife, Jessy, on 8 May to say he was returning home, but never arrived; the police said he was not in their custody and then, apparently, did nothing.

Mr Irani was a 36-year-old engineer but he was also the Lebanese University representative of the Student Committee of the Lebanese Forces, the revamped version of the old wartime militia, the Phalange. Though known to support an imprisoned militia leader, Samir Geagea, he had no known enemies. Except, perhaps, the three civilians who came hanging around his home for several weeks when Irani and his family were away.

Jessy Irani noticed them once and took their car numbers. Still nobody knows who they were.

Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the Maronite Patriarch, was the first to talk after the kidnapping about a "grave security lapse", remarking acidly that "it's strange that anyone can disappear for more than 48 hours without the security forces finding some trace". The implication, of course, was that someone's security forces might have been holding Irani.

But if so, why? In the city of unanswered questions, all that is known is that Irani appears to have been murdered nine days ago. His body was found after a woman complained about the smell of decomposition. His body was in too bad a state for the police to tell at once if he had been shot. No one knows how long the car had been parked in the neighbourhood. Which is stranger still. Because throughout his disappearance – when his car must also have been missing – no one thought to publish a photograph of the vehicle, or even to print its registration number.

Slowly, Jessy Irani made the weary rounds of statesmen, following in the footsteps of thousands of other relatives of the missing during the war.

Christian MPs rallied to her aide. Just before her husband was found, she even gained an audience with the Lebanese President, Emile Lahoud, who said the abduction placed Lebanon's credibility as a state at risk.

It was all too late. So the usual suspects were being brought up again yesterday. Could the Syrians have wanted Irani out of the way? Unlikely. The Lebanese Forces have relations with Syrians and – as one Lebanese journalist asked – "who had ever heard of Irani before he disappeared?"

There were rumours that he had maintained contact with former Israeli collaborators who worked in Israel's old occupation zone in southern Lebanon. Could Hizbollah have taken him for questioning? Privately, the Lebanese prosecutor does not believe this. These days, when Hizbollah have interrogated a Lebanese, they usually hand their prisoners to the government.

Two days after his kidnapping, however, Irani – or someone else – made a call on the missing man's mobile phone. The phone's location at the time was registered at Mreijeh, which is a largely Shia Muslim area of Beirut controlled by Hizbollah. But the mobile phone call point also covers an area called Hazmieh, which is Christian, and where Irani would have felt at home. The caller could have been from just about any of the old civil war factions.

By yesterday, the president of the Phalange Party, Karim Pakradouni, was calling the murder "a violation of the security of every citizen and of civil peace". During Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, at least 150,000 people were killed; 18,000 of the dead were kidnapped. Now that figure stands at 18,001.

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