BEIRUT — Government troops battled Christian militia rebels in southern Lebanon on Monday, wounding 13 civilians, and the British Embassy was closed in Beirut after a rash of kidnapings in the Lebanese capital.
The fighting in the southern hills led Premier Rashid Karami to warn in a radio broadcast that the nearly week-old militia revolt against Christian President Amin Gemayel is "driving the nation to annihilation."
Murabitoun radio, a Sunni Muslim station, said the battle broke out between Lebanese army units and rebel Christian militiamen supporting Samir Geagea, leader of the revolt that began last Tuesday over demands that Gemayel end his rapprochement with Syria and restore ties with Israel.
State-owned Beirut radio said the rebels started the fighting, but the rebel-run Voice of Free Lebanon blamed government troops. At least 13 civilians and five soldiers were reported wounded in the fighting around three villages, the broadcast said.
Lebanese newspaper reporters in the coastal city of Sidon, 24 miles south of Beirut, said by telephone that the sounds of artillery, heavy machine-gun fire and exploding grenades were heard for four hours near Aabra, a mountain village overlooking Sidon.
"What happened today is an Israeli plot against the Islamic majority," said Sheik Salah Arkadan, a Muslim leader. Israel has denied any role in the rebellion led by Geagea, who reportedly maintains close ties with Israel's intelligence service, the Mossad.
In Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon, Israeli occupation troops raided at least three Shia Muslim villages southeast of the port city of Tyre, bulldozed a house and took six villagers prisoner, an independent source said. Israel had no immediate comment on the report.
The raids came a day after guerrillas killed two Israeli soldiers and wounded five more in an ambush in southern Lebanon. With the army and allied security forces increasingly unable to protect Beirut residents, British Ambassador David Miers announced that he was closing the British Embassy in mainly Muslim West Beirut.
Miers termed the closure temporary and said Britain's embassy annex in the Christian sector of the city will remain open.
The closure followed the kidnapings last week of British citizens Geoffrey Nash, 60, and Brian Levick, 59, and American reporter Terry A. Anderson, 37. There was no word Monday on the fate of the two Britons or of Anderson, chief Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press.
The underground group Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War) claimed responsibility Sunday for kidnaping the three as part of its "continuing operations against America and its agents."
"I think this unexpected abduction came in response to Britain's stand at the U.N. Security Council," said Justice Minister Nabih Berri, leader of the powerful Shia militia, Amal.
Britain abstained in the voting last week when the United States vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have condemned Israel for its crackdown in Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon, a heavily Shia region.
Berri told a news conference that he will try to secure Anderson's release but said he "cannot make any promises" that his efforts will succeed.