A flamboyant Palestinian guerrilla leader who headed Israel's moswanted list as a reputed mastermind behind the 1972 Munich Olympics attack was assassinated yesterday by a remote-control bomb that exploded as he pulled away from his Beirut home, the guerrilla command announced.
Ali Hassan Salameh, a cocky commando with an affection for cowboystyle pistols and beautiful women, was Yasser Arafat's security chief and one of his top operatives.
His killing removes from the guerrilla movement one of its most powerful and effective captains in the shadowy underground struggle between Palestinian terrorists and Israeli special services.
Salameh, known as Abu Hassan, was chief of Arafat's Fatah "Special Operations" unit and was personally close to the over-all guerrilla leader. The elusive commando had escaped a documented Israeli assassination attempt in Europe in 1973 and was reported -- falsely -- by Western intelligence sources in 1976 to have been "reduced to a vegetable" by an Israeli hit team in southern Lebanon.
Abu Hassan, 36, scion of a prominent Palestinian family, reacted with a mixture of anger and laughter when roused from bed one morning by reporters checking that story.
But there was a feeling among observers that the commando leader nevertheless had long been living on borrowed time because of his role in the Munich tragedy, in which 11 Israeli athletes and five Palestinian terrorists were killed, and in continuing attempts by Arafat's guerrillas to strike at Israeli targets inside and outside the country.
There was no concrete indication who set the powerful bomb that went off in a parked car in western Beirut as Abu Hassan's station wagon came along side.
In all, eight persons -- Abu Hassan, four Palestinian bodyguards and three Lebanese passers-by -- were killed, according to an announcement from the Palestine Liberation Organization.
A communique from Fatah, the largest and most powerful PLO guerrilla group, blamed "Israeli intelligence and their allies."
An official of Wafa, the PLO news agency, told United Press International: "Whoever planted that bomb wanted to kill a lot of people. It went off about 4 o'clock and there is always a traffic jam at that place at that time of afternoon. And the Israelis still hold Abu Hassan responsible for Munich in their propaganda."
Other conceivable organizers of the assassination, analysts pointed out, included the Lebanese Christian militias, determined to reduce the Palestinian guerrilla presence in Lebanon, and rival factions within the Palestinian movement. These factions hope to undercut Arafat's leadership, considered moderate within the spectrum of Palestinian commando groups.
It was the Israelis, however, who had the most reason to hate Abu Hassan. Aside from his reputation as the operations chief at Munich, his "Special Operations" unit is known to concentrate much of its energy on terror strikes in Israel such as the bombs that frequently explode in markets at Jerusalem and other cities in Israel and Israeli-occupied territories.
According to "The Hit Team," a book drawn mostly from testimony in Norwegian counts, it was Abu Hassan whom a special Israeli assassination squad thought it was killing when a Moroccan waiter resembling him was gunned down in July 1973 in the central Norwegian city of Lillehammer.
A Norwegian court sentenced five Israelis to jail terms ranging from 5 1/2 years to one year in connection with that killing.
Despite the risks, Abu Hassan seemed to relish his role. As commander of Arafat's personal bodyguards during the height of the Lebanese civil war, he frequently roamed the streets of Beirut during the night packing a long revolver and surrounded by his own set of bodyguards carrying AK47 assault rifles.
During one point in the war, he became the Palestinians' chief negotiator, crossing battle lines into Christian-held territory to talk with rightist militia commanders over the release of civilians from the besieged Palestinian refugee camp Tal Zaatar.
Reporters covering the war in the wild west atmosphere of Beirut found him a valuable friend. One American correspondent, frightened at the prospect of a trip to the airport through combat areas, telephoned for help and Abu Hassan personally escorted him to his flight out of the country.
At the same time, his name generated fear among the many guerrillas accused of using the wartime chaos for robbery and plunder, because he also was held of Arafat's internal security forces known more for ruthlessness than due process.
Palestinian guerrillas reveled in telling of what they said was Abu Hassan's role in the international uproar that exploded over the arrest and subsequent release of Palestinian commando Abu Daoud by France in January 1977.
Not only was Abu Hassan the real commander of Munich -- the charge against Abu Daoud -- but he also was in Paris at the time with the former Miss Universe, Georgina Rizk, who later became his wife, they said.