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Geagea Issues Plea After Lebanese Forces Receive a Severe Pounding : Civil war: His Christian militia lashes back with an attack on Gen. Aoun's helicopter base. Another truce is called.

February 18, 1990|NICK B. WILLIAMS Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Caught in a deadly ring of armor and artillery, Lebanon's main Christian militia lashed back Saturday at rival army forces, pouring tank fire on an isolated helicopter base.

The Lebanese Forces attack on an estimated 750 army defenders at the Adma base near Juniyah, north of Beirut, swung the two-week-long struggle to another front.

Later Saturday, the warring Christian factions declared a cease-fire. Up to now, however, more than 10 such truces between the army troops of Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun and the Lebanese Forces militia of Samir Geagea have failed, and there were few hopes that any settlement was within sight Saturday.

Loss of the Adma base could cost Aoun 12 of his 18 Puma attack helicopters should his pilots be unable to fly them out. Meanwhile, according to an unconfirmed report carried by Beirut radio stations Saturday, the general's minuscule air force, four old British Hawker Hunters, were flown by defecting pilots to an air base under Syrian control.

But the prospect of such setbacks for Aoun could not erase the devastating defeat that the militia suffered Friday night.

Nearly 1,000 army infantrymen, backed by 36 tanks, Friday ground block by block, house by house, through the militia-controlled district of Ain Rummaneh in Christian East Beirut. At nightfall, according to press reports from the Lebanese capital, militia leader Geagea pulled out the last of his men.

He then went on the radio of the rightist Falange Party, whose militiamen form the core of the Lebanese Forces, and appealed for help. "I call on all world powers and all spiritual and political leaderships, especially the legitimate ones, to resume their full responsibilities towards the country and its citizens," he implored in a message broadcast repeatedly by the Voice of Lebanon.

While outside powers with influence in Lebanon--including France, the Vatican and the United States--have demanded that renegade army commander Aoun break off his assault on the militia, none appears likely to intervene. Geagea's appeal appeared directed instead at "legitimate" forces, namely the Lebanese government headed by President Elias Hrawi and backed by a Syrian army of 40,000 or more, the overwhelming military force in Lebanon.

Hrawi made no immediate response to Geagea's plea. But in Damascus, the Syrian capital, the authoritative Al Thawra newspaper declared again Saturday that President Hafez Assad's regime stands ready to support Hrawi, saying that Syrian troops are at his disposal.

Some press reports from Beirut mentioned movements of Syrian units in the Lebanese mountains above Aoun's headquarters at Baabda on the outskirts of East Beirut.

"But ask yourself, why would the Syrians want to get into a very dirty fight among Christians," said a Nicosia-based diplomat Saturday. "Assad is not the sort to rush into a situation that can only smear his army, even in victory. This fight has no direct effect on him."

The internecine struggle began at the end of January when Aoun, who has been sacked as army commander by Hrawi, demanded that the Lebanese Forces either disarm or join his ranks. The general appears utterly convinced of the justice of his beliefs--that there should be no armed force within Lebanon except what he considers his army.

Aoun speaks of the Lebanese Forces simply as "gunmen." In a country where no political party lacks a militia, the Falange has borne the brunt of the fighting against Muslim rivals over 15 years of civil war. But it has been no less combative against its Christian rivals.

The party militia of the powerful Gemayel clan, Falange fighters took on the Tigers militia of the late Christian leader Camille Chamoun and the Giants of former President Suleiman Franjieh in the early years of the war.

In a particularly vicious attack, Falange raiders killed Franjieh's son, Tony, his wife and their baby daughter. The raid was led by an up-and-coming militiaman named Samir Geagea.

Aoun has declared war on all militias, which he accuses of usurping government authority, and has shown no reluctance to engulf Beirut in urban warfare to achieve his aim. His conquest of Ain Rummaneh tightens the ring of army power around the Lebanese Forces. The district lies south of the Museum Crossing, the main transit point through the Green Line separating Christian East from Muslim West Beirut. To the north of the crossing lie Geagea's last redoubts in the capital itself, the districts of Ashrafiyeh and Karantina.

Press estimates put the number of dead in the 17 days of fighting at more than 580, with 1,800 or more wounded. In last year's punishing artillery war between Aoun's loyalists and Syrian and Muslim militia gunners on the west, more than 800 soldiers and civilians were reported killed, but that round of fighting lasted six months.

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