NICOSIA, Cyprus — Political antipathy between Lebanon's main Christian forces broke into open warfare Wednesday as Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun pressed his demand for total allegiance.
Police said at least 35 people were killed, including seven civilians, and 85 wounded.
Troops of Aoun's Lebanese Army brigades, backed by tanks, recoilless rifles and mortars, surrounded barracks of the rival Lebanese Forces militia in the suburbs of East Beirut and seized a building holding a militia research organization.
In response, the militiamen raced military vehicles through the morning traffic to set up machine-gun positions on rooftops near army barracks.
Heavy fighting was reported, and clashes continued after both sides called for a cease-fire in mid-afternoon.
Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces, 6,000 strong, gave ground in the early fighting, according to the press reports, but later in the day were reported to be consolidating their positions in areas around militia headquarters in the Karantina district near the main port.
The Voice of Lebanon, the right-wing Falangist Party's radio station, broadcast an interview with Geagea in which the militia commander declared: "We will not permit anyone to slaughter the Lebanese Forces. I call on those in charge of the army (Aoun) to alter the policy they've been following. . . . We have the patience of Job, but this cannot go on forever."
Lebanon's Maronite Christian primate, Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, appealed to the rival forces to break off the fighting.
"God have mercy on the Christians," he pleaded in a radio broadcast. "Whatever the reasons were for the feud, they could find a solution that will satisfy both sides."
Reports from Beirut described the fighting as the worst between Christian forces in nearly a year, since Aoun's troops drove the militia out of the port and its mountain positions last February. His crackdown on illegal Muslim and Christian militia operations at Lebanese harbors triggered a bloody six-month artillery war between the Christian-dominated Lebanese Army and Syrian troops and their Muslim militia allies.
Geagea's men played only a minimal part in that fighting, and relations between the militia leader and the general have soured since.
Both the Lebanese Forces and the Falangists have accepted last September's Arab League-negotiated accords, which more evenly divide political power between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon and led to the election of a new president. Rene Mouawad was assassinated in a car bombing days after taking office as president and was succeeded in office by Elias Hrawi, a Christian who, with Syrian backing, attempted to fire Aoun as army commander.
Hrawi's threats to remove Aoun by force from his stronghold at the presidential palace in suburban Baabda were ignored by the renegade general, who has belittled the president as a Syrian puppet.
Wednesday's fighting was apparently ignited by Aoun's demand Tuesday that the Christian militiamen either lay down their arms or join his army, which consists of about 15,000 men.
"No militia barracks are allowed henceforth to remain in the eastern (Christian) area," the blunt-speaking general said. "There are no armed elements outside the framework of the army. Everyone who wants to carry a rifle is welcome to carry it inside the army with us."
The Voice of Lebanon reported that gunshots had been heard around the U.S. Embassy compound in Aukar during Wednesday's clashes.
The embassy has been vacant except for Lebanese caretaking personnel since early September, when Ambassador John McCarthy and other embassy personnel were evacuated by helicopter. Washington spokesmen have said the staff could not perform its duties under threats by Aoun's followers.