BEIRUT — Gunmen with silencer-equipped submachine guns stopped an American University Hospital bus carrying as many as 40 people at Beirut's dividing Green Line on Saturday, climbed aboard and raked the passengers with bullets, killing three doctors and a hospital administrator, police said.
Three hospital personnel were wounded in the ambush near the so-called Franciscan crossing, one of six crossings between Muslim and Christian sectors of the capital. All the victims were Lebanese Christians, police said.
Security sources said the attack dealt a serious setback to a Syrian security plan to end months of militia rule in West Beirut. Syria sent troops into the mostly Muslim sector of the city on July 4 in a bid to restore order.
Police said the white-and-red hospital bus was intercepted by four gunmen, believed to be Muslims, shortly after noon. The gunmen got inside the bus, apparently through a back door, and sprayed the interior with bullets. They then escaped in a dark blue Peugeot sedan.
A nearby Lebanese army checkpoint fired at the escaping car, but missed, and the Peugeot raced into the shell-pocked Ras el Nabaa Muslim residential district near the Green Line, officers reported.
The bus driver, unhurt in the attack, but his yellow T-shirt stained with the blood of others, said he did not see the gunmen get aboard.
'Hail of Gunfire'
"We just ran into a hail of gunfire," said the driver, who would not give his name for fear of reprisals.
He said, though, that the gunmen may have boarded through the rear door without his realizing it. "I can't tell," he said. "I held to my wheel and then sped off to Makassed hospital as the bullets whizzed all around us."
"If I had not put my foot down on the accelerator all of us would be dead," he added.
Three passengers were killed instantly. They were identified as Dr. George Fares, Dr. Lilian Saba and administrator Wadi abu Khalil. Dr. Lilly Khairalla died later in the hospital, police said.
Taken to West Beirut
The victims' bodies were later taken from Makassed hospital near the ambush site to the American University Hospital in Muslim West Beirut.
The Lebanese Red Cross and police arranged for the survivors to cross the Green Line into Christian East Beirut an hour after the attack.
Residents said the gray hospital bus made three regular trips to East Beirut each week.
The hospital personnel had been heading for that sector of the capital to spend the weekend with their families when the bus was attacked, according to American University Hospital chief of staff Dr. Farid Fleihan.
The American University of Beirut and the affiliated American University Hospital have long been plagued by assassinations and kidnapings blamed on Shia Muslim extremists. Two American employees of the university, David P. Jacobsen, 54, of Huntington Beach, Calif. and Thomas Sutherland, 53, of Colorado, are among five Americans being held hostage in Lebanon.
The body of Peter Kilburn, 62, a librarian at American University, was found 10 miles east of Beirut in April along with the bodies of two British teachers, one of whom worked at the university.
Christian and Muslim radio stations denounced the ambush, terming it the "Green Line massacre." The stations said the attack was the work of "criminals trying to sabotage the (Syrian) security plan."
Justice Minister Nabih Berri, who heads the Shia Amal militia, vowed to "track down and punish the culprits."
He convened an emergency meeting of senior Muslim army officers and Amal security chiefs at his heavily guarded house in West Beirut.
"Nothing will be allowed to sabotage the security plan or disrupt the academic and medical missions of the AUB (American University of Beirut) and the AUH (American University Hospital)," Berri said.
An estimated 500 Syrian army troops have moved into West Beirut to help a special task force of 800 Lebanese Muslim soldiers and policemen enforce the security plan and reinstate Lebanese government authority.
The troops have been patrolling residential and commercial districts of West Beirut to ensure that all militias keep their offices closed and keep their gunmen off the street.