BEIRUT — A Red Cross relief convoy crossed into embattled East Beirut on Wednesday, delivering medical supplies to Christian hospitals and retrieving a handful of wounded.
As the battle for supremacy between Christian forces continued in its second week, overcrowded and bloodied hospital corridors and emergency rooms testified to the suffering.
Supplies of oxygen, plasma and drugs were drained or gone, according to press reports, and hospital authorities have announced that they will bury the dead in mass graves. Continuing shellfire kept most civilians pinned in their underground shelters, unable to pick up bodies of relatives for proper burial. Hospital morgues, like the rest of the Christian sector of the Lebanese capital, have been without power for days.
On the battlefronts, a relative lull marked the fighting between the troops of Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun and the Lebanese Forces militia. On Tuesday, Aoun's men had cut through to the Mediterranean coast at the town of Dbaiye, separating the militia's headquarters in the port-side Karantina district and its strongholds in urban East Beirut from militia forces farther north at the harbor towns of Juniyah and Jubayl.
Press estimates place the number of wounded in a week of fighting at more than 1,700, with at least 350 killed, a staggering toll that reflects the ferocity of the shelling and street battles. Reporters who made their way into Dbaiye on Wednesday morning said the town was devastated by the three-day battle there. No building appeared untouched, and scores of burned-out tanks and military vehicles filled the streets, they reported.
With his outnumbered militia hard-pressed by the loss of Dbaiye, Lebanese Forces commander Samir Geagea called late Tuesday on French President Francois Mitterrand "to act swiftly to arrange an immediate halt to the hysteric killing." France once administered Lebanon and is a strong supporter of the country's now-divided Christian community.
The Red Cross column of 10 ambulances was escorted across the so-called Green Line separating the Muslim western sector of the capital from the Christian east by French Embassy cars, an operation supervised by French envoy Bernard Kouchner.
Kouchner organized a similar relief mission last spring when all of Beirut was paralyzed by an artillery war between Aoun's forces and Syrian gunners in the west.
After delivering the medical supplies, the ambulances returned to West Beirut with 15 critically wounded patients, according to the press reports. They were placed aboard a French hospital plane at the Beirut airport for evacuation from the besieged capital.
With the collapse of eight cease-fires in the past week, the Lebanese Red Cross has managed only four missions into the eastern sector. At times, some of the eight Red Cross centers in East Beirut have gone unstaffed because of the fighting. One Red Cross team of 25 volunteers was trapped in its center for several days with 70 wounded civilians--and no way to evacuate or feed them.
The Lebanese civil war has exacted a steep price from the Red Cross. Since the conflict began in 1975, 11 volunteers have been killed and 30 wounded.
On Monday, when efforts failed to secure a truce so the Red Cross could pass, volunteers Marwan Tayyara and Ghaleb Sleem packed medical supplies in their small car and took their chances.
Relying on the good relations the Lebanese Red Cross has with all combatant forces in the country, the volunteers were able to reach two hospitals. Then Tayyara and Sleem made a second mission carrying bread, cheese, olives and water for Red Cross volunteers besieged in one center. Asked why he and Sleem had taken such a chance, Tayyara answered that his colleagues "couldn't continue any longer. And they would do the same for us."
The International Red Cross has 1,400 volunteers in its Lebanese contingent, many of them students. The current stage of the Lebanese conflict began last week when Aoun, who had been sacked as commander of the Lebanese army by President Elias Hrawi, demanded that the militia disarm or accede to his control. Geagea recognizes the Hrawi presidency, while Aoun has repudiated it as a Syrian puppet regime.
Early this week, several Arab newspapers suggested that the militia invited the break with the support of United States and Syria, both of which had demanded that Aoun step down in favor of a national reconciliation government headed by Hrawi. A report by the Paris correspondent of the Kuwaiti daily Al Qabas said Geagea had met with unidentified American officials in East Beirut and held secret contacts with Syrian authorities.
The aim, according to the Al Qabas report and others in the Saudi daily Ash Sharq al Awsat and the London-based Lebanese newspaper El Hayat, was to topple Aoun and bring his loyal troops under the authority of Hrawi.
There was no public confirmation of the accounts, which would put Syria and Washington in league with a militia whose reputation has been sullied in the past with charges of corruption.
Meanwhile, the fighting continued Wednesday with the failure of yet another truce.
"There's only one cease-fire that lasts in Lebanon," a local Red Cross official said, "and that's the one declared for Mrs. Alexandra Issa Khoury, our president."
The 80-year-old Red Cross administrator, a Maronite Catholic, lives in East Beirut. On weekday mornings at 6 a.m., she is picked up by her driver, Ali Haidar, a Shiite Muslim who lives in the southern suburbs of West Beirut. They drive across the Green Line to Red Cross headquarters, located in the western sector.
Her 20-year-old Buick bears Red Cross markings and a license plate that reads "Number 1."
"When they see Number 1 coming, they hold their fire," said the official.
Raschka reported from Beirut and Times staff writer Williams from Nicosia, Cyprus.