New evidence indicates Palestinians died hours after surviving camp massacres

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Chilling new evidence suggests that more than 1,000 Palestinian survivors of the Sabra and Chatila camp massacres in Beirut were "disappeared" within 24 hours of the slaughter, often in areas under direct Israeli military control.

The testimony – which describes in detail how the victims were last seen by their families in the hands of Israeli troops and Israel's militia allies – will be among the material to be considered by a Belgian judge, who could decide today whether the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, should be prosecuted for the slaughter.

Mr Sharon was judged "personally responsible" for the massacre by the Israeli Kahan Commission in 1983. Its report concluded that hundreds of Palestinian civilians, including women and children, were all butchered between 16 and 18 September in 1982.

But among the female witnesses cited by lawyers in Belgium, who are seeking the indictment against Mr Sharon, are at least five who claim that more than 100 men were detained by the militiamen and handed over to the Israelis alive. They were never seen again.

Separately from the court action,film taken by a television crew at the time, which has recently come to light, appears to show Israeli officers in the presence of Phalangist gunmen – long after the Israelis knew their Phalangist allies had carried out the massacre, which caused worldwide outrage and led Mr Sharon, then Defence Minister, to resign.

There has always been a discrepancy between the number of bodies found in Sabra and Chatila – up to 600 – and the number of civilians registered as missing – more than 1,800. Until now, it was assumed that all the victims had been murdered by Phalangists and that many had been secretly buried.

If accepted by the court, the new evidencecould hold disturbing implications for both the Israeli army and for Mr Sharon, particularly if the Israelis continued their collaboration with the Phalange after the murders in the camps and if they permitted the Phalange to take away more prisoners.