URGENT Officials Say Syrian Troops Kill 22 Hezbollah Fighters
BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Syrian truce enforcers on Tuesday killed 22 Shiite Moslem zealots in hand- to-hand combat and three Druse militiamen in embattled west Beirut, police and hospital authorities said.
A hospital official said 22 Hezbollah fighters were ″axed or bayoneted to death″ and another was ″barely alive.″
But a Hezbollah communique issued Tuesday night said 18 of its fighters had been killed in the clash in west Beirut’s Basta neighborhood and that others ″miraculously survived.″
Police said the Syrians fought with militiamen of Hezbollah, or Party of God, at about 9:15 p.m. The mortally wounded Hezbollah fighters were rushed to the Moslem-controlled Beirut hospital.
″They (the 22) were all dead when they were brought in. They were all axed or bayoneted to death,″ hospital manager Abdullah Nawfal told The Associated Press. ″They were killed in hand-to-hand combat.″
The Hezbollah communique said the victims were killed by the Syrians as the foreign forces moved in to take over a Hezbollah base in Basta.
Spokesmen at the Syrian military headquarters in west Beirut’s Beaurivage Hotel were not immediately available for comment.
But sources with pro-Syrian militias said the Syrians attacked when their troops came under fire from the Hezbollah fighters.
It was not immediately clear how the Syrians could get close enough to kill the Hezbollah fighters with bayonets if the Shiites were shooting at them with assault rifles.
Nawfal said members of Beirut’s Civil Defense Corps took the bodies to the Bir el-Abed suburban Shiite neighborhood, where Hezbollah has its command headquarters.
Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, is the most militant Shiite faction in Lebanon. It has been frequently reported to be the sponsor of extremist groups involved in kidnapping foreigners in Beirut.
The clash was the most serious confrontation involving the Syrians since they intervened to quell factional fighting in Beirut’s Moslem sector Sunday. It could strain relations between Iran and Syria, which is the strongest Arab ally of the Persian nation in its 6 1/2 -year-old war with Arab Iraq.
Earlier Tuesday, Syrian foot patrols marched into west Beirut’s battle zone to occupy Druse and Shiite militia strongholds and killed three Druse militiamen who refused to obey an order to halt.
The rival Druse and Shiite forces, who have battled for a week for control of west Beirut, pulled out of most positions ahead of the Syrian soldiers.
Assassins who were not identified shot down two ranking Communists in the ancient southern port of Sidon, 25 miles south of Beirut. Twelve members of the pro-Moscow Lebanese Communist Party have been slain in south Lebanon in the past nine days.
Thousands of Syrian soldiers and 100 tanks moved into Beirut’s Moslem sector Sunday to end fighting between a Druse-Communist alliance and the main Shiite Moslem militia, Amal, in which at least 300 people were reported killed and 1,300 wounded. Moslem leaders asked Syria to put a halt to the warfare.
The intervention force’s size originally was estimated at 4,000 men, but Syrian military sources said Tuesday it consisted of two armored and mechanized brigades totaling 6,400 men, backed by an 800-member Special Forces paratroop battalion.
President Hafez Assad of Syria, Lebanon’s main power broker, keeps 25,000 soldiers in the eastern and northern parts of the country. His government supports all factions involved in the west Beirut battle.
Syrian troops took over 50 neighborhood militia offices Tuesday. Police said three militiamen were killed in the seaside Raouche district.
A police spokesman said they fled when a Syrian foot patrol ordered them to halt, and ″Syrian soldiers chased them, killed all three and resumed their search for armed men in the neighborhood.″
Police would not identify the victims, all apparently in their early 20s, but several witnesses said they were members of Walid Jumblatt’s Druse militia. Raouche is a Druse stronghold.
The police spokesman, who would not let his name be used, said the Syrians arrested dozens of people in raids on houses in parts of west Beirut controlled by the Druse and Amal.
Both factions, along with Hezbollah, abandoned their major bases in west Beirut and withdrew most of their fighters.
Syrian troops took over the main Druse barracks in the seafront Ein Mreisseh district; the unfinished 40-story Murr Tower, which was controlled by Amal and is Beirut’s tallest building, and Hezbollah’s Fathalla base in the Shiite slum district of Basta, police reported.
They said Amal and Hezbollah militiamen moved into the Shiite slums on west Beirut’s southern edge, and the Druse pulled back to Jumblatt’s ancestral stronghold in the Chouf Mountains southeast of the city.
A 45-vehicle Druse convoy, including mobile anti-aircraft guns and multibarreled rocket launchers, left the main barracks at first light.
When it crossed the Khalde intersection on Beirut’s southern outskirts, Druse militiamen fired machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades in the air in an apparent gesture of defiance.
″The Syrians thought this was a farewell, so they let off a similar fusillade as a salute for the departing fighters,″ the police spokesman said.
Rubber tires were burned at Hezbollah headquarters, however, which a Lebanese security official described as an attempt to mask traces of foreign hostages.
Extremist Shiite factions are believed to have seized most of the 26 foreigners held hostage in Lebanon, eight of whom are Americans.
Iran sent Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati and Mohsen Rafiq-Doust, the Revolutionary Guards minister, to Damascus on Monday night for talks with Syrian leaders before the militia withdrawals. They returned home Tuesday.
Syria’s influence in Lebanon is challenged by growing Iranian influence expressed through such extremist factions as Hezbollah.
Several vengeance killings occurred before the militias’ withdrawal. Police said five members of a Shiite family were found slain in their home in the Karakol Druse neighborhood, and two Druse pharmacists and a shopkeeper were found dead.
Communists and Amal are among the factions vying for influence with the 1 million Shiites, who dominate in the south and are the largest of Lebanon’s 17 officially recognized sects.