CAIRO — Thousands of refugees flooded back into Beirut on Saturday, queuing up on roads into the shell-shocked city as a haggard-looking Arab League mediator at mid-afternoon announced a cease-fire in Lebanon's bloody civil war.
Emerging from a meeting with a security committee appointed to oversee a new interim peace plan, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Ibrahimi said in an announcement broadcast through much of the Middle East, "I declare that all groups agreed to work immediately on stabilizing the cease-fire."
The security committee, in a meeting punctuated with occasional mortar and machine gun blasts nearby, also said it will move quickly to end the Syrian blockade of Christian ports and reopen Beirut International Airport, closed since the latest round of fighting broke out in March.
"The concerned parties will be instructed to carry out the committee's decisions immediately," Ibrahimi said.
Packed Cars, Jammed Roads
News services in Lebanon reported that thousands of cars packed with families, suitcases and blankets began streaming back into Beirut on Saturday in anticipation of the cease-fire announcement, jamming the roads leading into the city from Muslim neighborhoods in southern Lebanon and running bumper-to-bumper into Beirut's Christian enclave from the north.
But the Associated Press also reported that Syrian and Christian forces traded machine-gun fire in the hills overlooking Beirut three hours after the 3:15 p.m. cease-fire declaration, wounding three people as mortar rounds hit Christian residential neighborhoods north of the city.
"These are unnecessary setbacks," Ibrahimi told the Voice of Lebanon radio, vowing to contact members of the security committee to silence the gunfire.
All Factions Represented
The committee includes representatives of all the major warring factions in Lebanon, including Christian leader Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun's forces, along with those of his rival Syrian-backed Muslim militias and the Muslim army command of Maj. Gen. Sami Khatib.
Syria is not represented on the committee, despite the estimated 40,000 troops it maintains in Lebanon, which prompted Aoun to initially resist the Arab League's mediating efforts. Aoun argued that Syria was falsely trying to portray the crisis as strictly a Lebanese dispute.
Aoun had also reportedly objected to the interim peace plan's failure to require immediate Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, but under intense pressure from the Arab League and his traditional backers in the West, Aoun gave in Friday night and accepted the plan, setting the stage for Saturday's cease-fire.
Beirut residents began flooding into the city almost immediately after Aoun's announcement, news agencies reported.
All but about 150,000 of Beirut's 1.5 million residents had fled the city, most of them in the last six months as the latest round of shelling in the 14-year civil war took its toll. The renewed fighting erupted in March after Aoun vowed to rout the Syrian forces from Lebanon and then ordered his forces to blockade ports operated by Druze and Shiite militias, which in turn touched off a ferocious wave of violence that has killed more than 800.
The cease-fire is only the beginning of a seven-point peace plan adopted by the Arab League committee.
The plan also calls for international monitoring to prevent additional arms shipments to the warring parties and reconvening what remains of Lebanon's Parliament to initiate political reforms that would shift a greater share of power from the Christians, who traditionally have dominated the government, to the Muslims, who now make up about 55% of the population.