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Two Top PLO Leaders Assassinated in Tunis, Hostages Taken

January 15, 1991 GMT

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) _ A turncoat bodyguard assassinated PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s two senior deputies Monday night at a house outside Tunis, along with a member of their security team, Palestinian officials said.

A senior Palestinian commander in Tunis said the killer is a former member of Abu Nidal’s terrorist PLO faction, sworn enemies of Arafat. But ″we still don’t know who he’s working for,″ the commander said. ″He may also be working for the Israelis.″

The gunman took hostage the family of one of the victims and was demanding a plane to fly him out of Tunis after killing Salah Khalaf, Arafat’s second- in-command and counterintelligence chief; Hayel Abdel-Hamid, the PLO’s security chief; and Abu Mohammed Al-Omari, Khalaf’s aide, sources in Tunis said.

The death of Khalaf left Arafat as the sole survivor among the three original founders of Fatah, the first PLO group and its largest faction.

Khalaf, better known as Abu Iyad, was the mastermind of the Black September murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. He cultivated a moderate position in recent years.

Abdel-Hamid’s nom-de-guerre was Abul Hol. Both men were in their late 50s.

At the United Nations, the PLO’s representative blamed Israeli agents for the killings, which he compared to the April 16, 1988, assassination of the other PLO founder, Khalil al-Wazir. That killing also took place in Tunisia.

″It doesn’t take a genius″ to figure out who killed the two leaders, said the representative, M. Nasser Al-Kidwa.

The PLO commander said Abdel-Hamid’s wife and teenage daughter were being held by the gunman, whom he identified only as Hamza, Abdel-Hamid’s bodyguard, in their house in the Tunis suburb of Marsa.

The house was surrounded by Tunisian security forces and Palestinian guerrillas more than five hours after the shootings occurred at 11 p.m., said the commander, who was interviewed by telephone from Nicosia, Cyprus.

Arafat was on his way from Amman to Paris for talks on the gulf crisis when the shooting occurred, but canceled his trip, Daniel Bernard, a French Foreign Ministry spokesman, said at a Paris briefing.

Arafat had planned to promote a French-Palestinian initiative in which Iraq would pull its troops from Kuwait in exchange for promises of a future Mideast conference on the Palestinian situation, an aide said. Arafat had flown into Amman earlier Monday from Baghdad.


The Palestinian commander said Hamza has long ties to the Libyan-backed Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal but quit the group and began working as Abdel- Hamid’s bodgyuard six months ago.

″He may still have ties to Abu Nidal, but he may also be working for the Israelis,″ said the commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

There has never been an official claim of responsibility for al-Wazir’s 1988 slaying. Israeli sources said the Mossad intelligence service and the Israeli navy killed al-Wazir because he helped organize Palestinian rioting on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The commander said the episode began when Hamza grabbed Abdel-Hamid’s wife and daughter. He held them at gunpoint as he stormed into the room where the PLO officials were meeting and opened fire, he said.

Through a window, he shouted at bewildered Tunisian and PLO security men outside the house that he would kill the hostages unless he was given safe passage to the airport and a plane to fly him out. He did not say where he wanted to go, the commander added.

Khalaf, a native of Haifa, Israel, had topped Israel’s wanted list as one of the main brains behind Black September.

But U.S. diplomats held conversations with Khalaf in Tunisia during a brief period of direct U.S.-PLO communications in 1989.

During the 1956 Middle East war, al-Wazir, Arafat and Khalaf met as students in Egypt. They later were reunited in Kuwait and officially founded Fatah in 1965, as an underground group dedicated to regaining the land Palestinians lost to Israel.

Fatah, the reverse Arabic acronym for the Palestine National Liberation Movement, was to become the core of the Palestinian movement. Fatah accounts for more than 80 percent of the estimated 15,000 hardcore guerrilla fighters.

Abu Nidal, whose real name is Sabri al-Banna, split from Fatah in 1973. He is highly sought by police agencies for terrorist attacks including the massacre at the Vienna and Rome airports in December 1985.

Abu Nidal has vowed to kill Arafat for seeking a negotiated settlement with the Israelis. Arafat, in turn, has sentenced Abu Nidal to death.