BEIRUT — Several thousand people were reported Sunday to have fled the northern port of Tripoli as heavy fighting between rival militia groups swirled through the city for the eighth day, claiming another 29 lives.
Police said that in addition to the 29 deaths, 50 were wounded Sunday, bringing casualties since fighting began Sept. 15 to 155 dead and 434 injured.
Local press reports said that large areas of Tripoli have been devastated in the all-day rocket and artillery barrages.
The fighting, which has flared intermittently for the last two years, is between a Sunni Muslim fundamentalist group called Tawhid (Islamic Unification Movement) and the Syrian-supported Arab Democratic Party, a militia organization sometimes also known as the Arabian Knights.
Two cargo ships just outside Tripoli harbor were reported to have been hit by shellfire on Sunday. The ships were not identified and there was no indication if there were any casualties.
One-Third of Inhabitants Flee
Officials in Tripoli said that about one-third of the city's normal population of 700,000 appears to have fled to escape the fighting. Tripoli is Lebanon's second largest city.
The damage to homes and shops throughout the center of Tripoli was described as "beyond imagination" by one official. Fires burned out of control as beleaguered firefighters attempted in vain to control the hundreds of burning buildings.
Premier Rashid Karami, a Sunni Muslim from Tripoli, conferred through the day with Syrian officials in the city in an effort to arrange a cease-fire.
Despite the bloody scale of the fighting, the causes of the confrontation were somewhat murky, even to many Lebanese.
The Arab Democratic Party is composed primarily of followers of the Alawite religious sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. Alawites predominate in the Syrian government, including President Hafez Assad, even though the population of the country is mostly Sunni.
Support from Arafat
The Tawhid group is led by a Muslim fundamentalist, Sheik Said Shaban, who in the past received material support from Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The militiamen of the Arab Democratic Party, often called the Pink Panthers after the results they get from laundering their Soviet-supplied camouflage uniforms, have accused the PLO of using Tripoli harbor as a route for sending supplies to Arafat loyalists in other parts of Lebanon.
Diplomats here tend to regard the fighting as most likely a proxy battle between the Syrians and Arafat, who have become bitter enemies.
The Arab Democratic Party has demanded as a key element in any peace plan that the harbor be turned over to the Lebanese army under Syrian supervision "to stop the Arafat clique from infiltrating the city with their weapons."
The Syrians have several thousand troops in the north of Lebanon, but none in Tripoli itself.
Tawhid opposes turning the port over to the Lebanese government, primarily because it derives substantial revenues from the operation of the facility.