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Syrian-Christian Artillery Duel Pours 80 Shells a Minute on Beirut

September 02, 1989|NICK B. WILLIAMS Jr. | Times Staff Writer

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Beirut shuddered Friday under a resurgence of the Syrian-Christian artillery war. More than 80 shells a minute pounded the Lebanese capital at times, and at least seven people were killed.

The shelling began at dawn, breaking a pattern of relative restraint that began two weeks ago with a U.N. call for a cease-fire. Reports from Lebanon said shells hit every part of the 310-square-mile Christian enclave, while return fire shattered apartment buildings in Muslim West Beirut.

French Diplomat Departs

"The dialogue of cannons replaces diplomatic initiatives," the pro-Christian newspaper Ad Diyar said Friday, reporting increased shelling Thursday that seemed minor 24 hours later. The newspaper said history will pass "a severe judgment" on Syria's role in Lebanon. It labeled the Damascus regime a "hangman."

The renewed shelling coincided with the departure of French diplomat Francois Scheer, who had shuttled between Damascus and Beirut trying to get support for a Paris peace initiative. Like an earlier Arab League effort, the French plan met stiff resistance, particularly from Syria, according to Beirut press reports. Again the main issue was how to assure both sides that the other would not rearm during a cease-fire.

As Scheer departed for Saudi Arabia to confer with King Fahd, a major player in the Arab League effort, the guns resumed the shelling that has made Beirut a ghost town over the past five months. By some accounts, 9 of every 10 Beirutis have fled the city, and more were attempting to flee Friday morning when the heavy bombardment commenced.

According to police reports:

-- More than 80 Syrian shells crashed into the Casino du Liban in the Christian coastal zone, once the pleasure palace of rich Arabs and Europeans who made Lebanon the playground of the Middle East.

-- A Syrian gun emplacement on the corniche, the seashore road of West Beirut, was knocked out by Christian gunfire. The radar-controlled 130-millimeter gun has been nicknamed "Abu Abdo" (roughly, "Father of the Tough Guy") by residents of apartment blocks who have paid a price for living across the street from the Syrian position. Many times their flats had been hit by Christian gunners ranging in on "Abu Abdo."

-- A Christian spokesman said that a major Syrian ammunition dump 16 miles northeast of Beirut had been hit by Christian shells, setting off a series of explosions in a pine forest that provided concealment but not cover.

Civilians Get a Warning

"Civilians are strongly advised to remain in shelters and take maximum precautionary measures," Voice of the Nation, a Muslim radio station, said in a broadcast warning. "The mad wave of shelling is intensifying and sparing no one."

Some reports laid the increased shelling to statements by Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun, commander of the Christian-led Lebanese army, that two attempts were made during the night by Muslim fighters to infiltrate his lines.

According to an army spokesman, speaking anonymously, a group of 12 Muslim militiamen were turned back when they tried to cross into Christian East Beirut near the capital's main port, the northern terminus of the so-called Green Line that divides the city. A second infiltration attempt was reported in the mountains forming the eastern flank of the Christian enclave.

"We believe they were reconnaissance attempts by Syria's allies to feel out our combat readiness," the spokesman said.

40,000 Syrian Troops in Place

Syria has an army of 40,000 men deployed in Lebanon, supported by at least 15 Lebanese Muslim militia groups made up of Palestinians and Druze, an offshoot Muslim sect. Aoun's army numbers about 20,000 and has the support of the right-wing Lebanese Forces militia of 6,000 Christians.

Two weeks ago in Damascus, the foreign ministers of Syria and Iran met with leaders of the Lebanese militias in a council of war to lay plans for driving Aoun from power. The meeting came two days after Syrian-supported militias attacked Lebanese army positions at the strategic ridgeline village of Souq el Gharb, the first ground attack of the five-month-long test of wills and artillery fire between Aoun and Syrian President Hafez Assad.

Military analysts believe that the militias will provide the ground troops for a Syrian-directed ground assault of the Christian heartland if diplomatic efforts fail to dislodge Aoun. The general shows no sign of giving way, and Friday's shelling may indicate that the diplomats have lost their chance to prevent an escalation of this round in the war, which by some accounts has taken more than 800 civilian lives since it began in March.

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