BEIRUT — A grenade fired by battling Christian forces hit a school bus at a crossing gateway between east and west Beirut today, setting it on fire and killing at least 15 people, including 11 children, police said.
"Many of the pupils yelled for help as we tried to extinguish the fire. At least one teacher also was among the dead along with the driver," a soldier on the scene told the Associated Press.
A police spokesman said the bus was hit at 2:30 p.m. while trying to cross to Christian East Beirut.
The spokesman, who is unidentified in accord with regulations, said the bus from Mraijeh Elementary School, a new private school in south Beirut, was hit by an incendiary rifle grenade, which ignited the fuel tank.
"It couldn't be determined who fired the rifle grenade," the spokesman said.
Another account by Reuters news service said the school bus was hit by Christian militia machine-gun fire and it then crashed into a fuel truck and went up in flames
It is not known why children from predominantly Christian East Beirut were attending primary school in South Beirut, a Shiite Muslim stronghold. But many students are among the estimated 30,000 people who commute across the line daily.
The radio station of Christian Gen. Michel Aoun said the bus was fired at by rival gunmen of Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces militia.
"Geagea's fire burned out the children," the broadcast said.
Geagea's command could not be reached by telephone from West Beirut to comment on the report.
However, the pro-Geagea Voice of Lebanon radio station called the hit "mysterious."
The gutted wreckage of the yellow bus lay on the pavement in the Aoun-controlled sector, a few yards east of the crossing that links Beirut's eastern and western sectors across the dividing Green Line.
A teacher who escaped collapsed when she learned that her three children had perished. "I wish I had stayed with them in the bus. I would have died with them," she wailed.
Also today, a blast ripped through a barracks used by Aoun's troops in the Christian village of Yarze, killing four soldiers and wounding several, including two captains. Security sources said the explosion occurred by accident while artillery shells were being moved.
Aoun has been locked in bloody power struggle with Geagea for more than two months. They have been battling since Jan. 30 for control of the 310-square-mile Christian enclave. The fighting has killed 877 people and wounded 2,388.
Meanwhile, rival Shiite Muslim militias fought a 90-minute gun battle this morning in Syrian-policed West Beirut, and one person was killed and four wounded, a police spokesman said.