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House-to-House Battles Rage in Lebanon Camps

May 24, 1985|From Times Wire Services

BEIRUT — Shia Muslim militiamen and Palestinian guerrillas struggled for control of Beirut's refugee camps Thursday, fighting from house to burning house. Dozens of bodies lay in the streets.

Police said that at least 201 people have been killed and about 1,165 wounded since the battle began Sunday. The Red Cross and officials on both sides said that dozens of the dead were uncounted and that bodies had still not been collected from the battle areas.

The guerrillas fought desperately, often hand-to-hand, but were encircled by the militiamen and Shia soldiers of the Lebanese army, who are determined to keep the Palestinian fighters from re-establishing themselves in this war-ravaged country.

Thousands at Mass

Meanwhile, in Christian East Beirut, thousands attended a funeral Mass for 37 men, women and children killed when a car packed with explosives blew up Wednesday at a busy intersection in the Sin el Fin neighborhood.

Tears streamed down the faces of hardened Christian militiamen as they fought to control hundreds of hysterical mourners, some of whom threw themselves shrieking on the long row of coffins as they arrived for the open-air service.

Police initially reported that 60 were killed and 190 wounded in the bombing. They said Thursday that they had recovered only 37 bodies and that 21 people were missing and believed dead.

Minutes after the service began, grief turned to fear as artillery shells exploded not far from the packed square, which suddenly became half empty as mourners began to flee amid chaotic shouting.

In southern Beirut, Palestinian guerrillas, pressed into a small defensive area in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps, fired through holes knocked through the walls of tin-roofed houses turned into sandbagged fortresses.

"It's a horrific tragedy. They (militiamen and soldiers) are pulverizing the camps, house by house, with heavy artillery and tank cannon. Dozens of bodies are lying on the streets. They won't let the Red Cross in," a Palestinian spokesman said.

Shia militiamen poured machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades into the sprawling Borj el Brajne camp, also in south Beirut, but by Thursday night they had made no attempt to move in.

Accusations From Damascus

In Syria, two Damascus-based Palestinian guerrilla groups accused Amal, the Shia militia, of "committing massacres" against Palestinian civilians in the Beirut camps.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine said that Amal is "killing (Palestinians) and shelling and destroying the camps" in an attempt to disarm the Palestinians.

Yasser Abed Rabbo of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine charged that elements within Amal "have killed and set fire to many Palestinian families and tortured or killed a number of patients in hospitals."

Palestinian gunners on hills east of the city poured rocket and artillery fire into Beirut for the second day in a row, trying to take the heat off the guerrillas inside the refugee camps, who have vowed to fight "to the last drop of our blood."

Salvoes of rockets crashed into Shia-populated areas in south Beirut. At one point, an average of 15 rockets a minute were pounding the residential areas. Several hit the main Lebanese army barracks at Ramlet el Baida, and the soldiers were evacuated. No estimate of casualties was available.

Airport Shelled

Two shells exploded on the tarmac at the airport, south of the city, as passengers were filing off a Middle East Airlines flight from Paris. Witnesses said that two Boeing 707 planes were damaged by shrapnel, and the control tower diverted later incoming flights to Larnaca, Cyprus.

The Palestinians launched repeated counterattacks Thursday through the narrow alleyways of the ramshackle Sabra and Chatilla camps, but most of the guerrillas were reported to be squeezed into a zone about 100 yards square in the adjoining camps.

They held onto two high-rise apartment blocks on the camps' fringe despite shellfire that has turned the buildings into skeletons. The Palestinians captured the buildings in a breakout from Sabra on Tuesday.

In one counterattack, guerrillas lobbed grenades and fired machine guns at the attackers, recapturing positions that the Shias had overrun earlier. A militiaman said the Amal fighters left their casualties in the streets.

"We thought we'd crushed them," he told reporters wearily. "They're still there, firing at close range from holes in the walls and from holes in the ground."

Fleeing Refugees

Many of the 120,000 refugees who normally live in the three camps have fled, mainly to areas in Beirut and the mountains to the east that are held by the Druze, followers of an offshoot sect of Islam.

Fighting around the refugee camps was the heaviest involving Palestinians since the 1982 Israeli invasion drove most of the guerrillas out of the country.

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