Aoun Rejects Ultimatum to Leave Presidential Palace
BAABDA, Lebanon (AP) _ Christian army commander Gen. Michel Aoun rejected an ultimatum to leave the presidential palace, and said Monday he would die fighting, even with ″kitchen knives, sticks and stones.″
Aoun told a news conference in his bunker beneath the shell-battered palace east of Beirut that he was recruiting volunteers to meet a possible assault by the 40,000 Syrian soldiers stationed in Lebanon.
Military sources discounted reports of military buildups in mountains above the palace in the Baabda suburb, and along the line that divides Moslem west Beirut from the Christian eastern sector.
A ranking Moslem army officer said privately: ″There is absolutely no move on the ground to suggest that a collision is imminent.″
He said the ″fronts are as they have been since the cease-fire″ that began Sept. 22, ending six months of fighting between the Syrians and the 20,000 men of Aoun’s Christian army units.
Elias Hrawi, the newly elected president who gave Aoun the ultimatum, issued a statement at his temporary headquarers in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley town of Chtoura urging Christian troops to support him.
″Gen. Aoun is placing the Lebanese nation at an impossible, destructive and reckless option that leads only to the underground shelters ... while the presidency has decided to lead the nation out of the death mill to peace,″ said Hrawi, a Maronite Catholic like Aoun.
″It is the legitimate government’s right to employ all means and potenial to recover what has been usurped from it.″
On Sunday, the president gave Aoun 48 hours to leave the palace.
In his bunker, the 54-year-old general said sarcastically Monday that Hrawi should have been ″considerate enough to make it 72 hours, to give me enough time to pack and leave.″
″Mr. Hrawi has no forces of his own to fight me with,″ Aoun said. ″He will have to rely on Syria’s occupation forces.″
Aoun calls the Syrian soldiers an occupation army and has declared a ″war of liberation″ to drive them out. The Syrians are in Lebanon under an Arab League peacekeeping mandate issued in 1976, one year after the beginning of a sectarian civil war that has taken more than 150,000 lives.
The Syrians ″have the means to attack me from the air,″ Aoun said. ″I might be killed in such an air attack. I am going to die fighting. I’ll fight even with kitchen knives, sticks and stones to defend Lebanon’s honor.″
He said he had opened recruitment centers ″all over the free (Christian) areas to take volunteers to share in the final battle for the defense of Lebanon,″ he said, and accused Syria of wanting to ″eliminate Lebanon.″
Simon Bitar, 22, said outside the palace he had volunteered, along with at least 8,000 other young Christians. That number could not be confirmed.
After President Amin Gemayel’s six-year term ended in September 1988 with Parliament unable to agree on a successor, Aoun led a Christian Cabinet in competition with a Moslem government for 14 months.
He rejected Hrawi’s election Friday as unconstitutional, as he had the election of President Rene Mouawad, who was killed Wednesday, 17 days after he was sworn in.
By unwritten covenant followed since independence from France in 1943, Lebanon’s president is a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Moslem and the Parliament speaker a Shiite Moslem.
Aoun has denied Syrian charges that he was behind the attack on Mouawad. On Monday, he repeated his own accusation that the Syrians killed Mouawad, who was their staunch ally.
The general also opposed Parliament’s approval of a peace plan - worked out by the legislators in weeks of negotiations at Taif, Saudi Arabia - that is designed to give Moslems an equal share of power.
Christians were the majority in 1943 and have dominated the government, army and judiciary since, but Moslems now make up about 55 percent of the population.
Reporters who went to the bunker saw an anti-aircraft battery at the palace entrance and soldiers pouring mud, as camouflage, on an armored personnel carrier and a tank.
Western journalists who toured Souk el-Gharb and Dhour el-Shweir, the main gateways to Baabda from Syrian-controlled east Lebanon, said they did not see Syrian reinforcements.
Hrawi, 64, said Sunday he was determined to govern from the palace, the traditional seat of presidents.
″Whatever is left of Baabda, even if it is one room, when this situation is over it will be my residence,″ he said.