SIDON, Lebanon — Spearheaded by Syrian-supplied armor, waves of leftist Muslim militiamen and their Druze allies routed Christians from coastal strongpoints in southern Lebanon on Sunday.
Christian refugees, left in a power vacuum by last week's Israeli withdrawal from the area, fled by the thousands to the mountain stronghold of Jezzine while others headed for the Israeli-occupied zone.
For the first time in the years of factional fighting that began with the 1975-76 Lebanese civil war, the Muslims gained control of the coastal highway from Beirut to Sidon, 25 miles south of the capital.
At least 25 people were reported killed and 30 wounded in the southern fighting, according to incomplete police casualty counts.
The fighting erupted about midnight Saturday with a two-pronged attack on the Christians. The Popular Liberation Army of leftist and Muslim militias pushed east from the coast, while the the Druze thrust south behind Soviet-made, Syrian-supplied T-54 tanks.
Druze Capture Port
The Druze captured the port of Jiye, six miles north of Sidon, pinching off the Christians' last lifeline to their northern heartland.
In Sidon, provincial capital of the south, witnesses reported that Muslim and Druze forces linked up around the port, eliminating the last Christian enclaves in the area.
Security sources said the leftist forces--an alliance of Druze-led Progressive Socialist Party militiamen and Sunni Muslim nationalist and Islamic fundamentalist fighters--intended to attack the Christian mountain town of Jezzine, 15 miles east of Sidon, within 24 hours.
The Christians' Voice of Lebanon radio station reported thousands of Christians fleeing in trucks, buses and cars toward Jezzine. The mountain enclave was already jammed with an estimated 50,000 refugees, who had fled there from the last five weeks of Christian-Muslim fighting in Sidon and its eastern suburbs.
Officials said earlier that food, medicine and other essentials were running out in Jezzine. With Jiye fallen to the leftists, there appeared little hope of immediate relief.
The outnumbered Christians reeled under Sunday's combined offensive, relinquishing Majdel Youn and Salhiye on the Jezzine road after artillery and rocket battles.
The Druze, members of a secretive offshoot sect of Islam, also swept through the Kharoub region between Damour and Sidon, extending the Druze homeland in the Shouf Mountains to the Mediterranean for the first time.
After seven hours of fighting, the Druze linked up with their Sunni allies on the Awwali River Bridge north of Sidon, amid the jubilant firing of machine guns.
"God gave us victory within 30 minutes. The Israelis abandoned them (the Christians), and they ended empty-handed," a Druze fighter declared. "When you are right, you are victorious."
Lebanese security sources said 500 Christians abandoned Jezzine and headed for protection behind Israeli lines, about five miles to the south. Israeli forces withdrew from the area around Jezzine last Wednesday.
Roads inside the Israeli zone were jammed with cars from the north, some carrying eight or nine people. Suitcases and mattresses were tied to car roofs.
"The bombs and attacks . . . pushed me from my village," a refugee from Majdel Youn said. "I am wealthy. I have gold. My house is full. I bring nothing with me, only the car and keys of my house."
Many of the hundreds of Christian refugees inside Israeli lines appealed to Israel to come to their aid.
"They (the Israelis) should help us--our future is together," one man who arrived in Kleya with his 90-year-old mother told a reporter. "They should occupy all of Lebanon. Even if God comes down, he cannot help us more than they do."
In Tel Aviv, Israeli officials said their country will not intervene militarily on behalf of the Christians.
"These people are our friends. They have regarded themselves as our allies, and I believe there is not one Israeli who is indifferent to their plight," Israeli Cabinet Minister Moshe Arens said Sunday.
"But a decision (to withdraw) has been made, and I believe that consistency is the essence of any policy. There is no sense that--having left Jezzine only a few days ago--we should talk about returning there."
Israel invaded its northern neighbor in June, 1982, with the stated intention of crushing Palestinian guerrilla strongholds. The Israeli Cabinet has authorized a pullout of all troops by June 1.
The weekend fighting heightened fears of a final partition of Lebanon into Muslim and Christian zones, after a decade of bloodshed in which, according to the government, 100,000 people have died.
In Sunday's battles, Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party militia was reinforced with T-54s and armored vehicles handed over by Syria after last week's Israeli withdrawal from the Bekaa Valley.
Jumblatt, who commands about 6,000 fighters and also sits on President Amin Gemayel's Cabinet, toured the area and said he wanted the 37,000-strong Lebanese army to take control of the coastal highway. However, the relatively ineffectual army--still unable to extend government control over the majority of Lebanon's territory--made no effort to intervene Sunday.
Pillars of smoke rose above Joun, a village northeast of Sidon, as Muslim fighters, many sporting cowboy hats, sneakers and T-shirts, torched and plundered Christian homes.
Druze officials said retreating Christians "randomly massacred" Muslim civilians by raking houses with gunfire. There was no independent confirmation.