Lebanese Soldiers Backed by Tanks Move Into Christian, Druse Heartland
BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Five thousand Lebanese soldiers backed by tanks entered the Druse and Christian enclaves Wednesday to dismantle militia strongholds carved out during 16 years of civil war.
″It is a new dawn in Lebanon’s history. Be ready to receive it,″ Christian militia leader Samir Geagea told his fighters in a statement broadcast by local radio stations.
Geagea’s Christian Lebanese Forces and militiamen under Druse warlord Walid Jumblatt offered no resistence as Lebanese army troops moved south into the Chouf mountains and north into hills controlled by the Christians, the army said.
″Only the rain is slowing us down,″ said an army captain, who refused to give his name.
The Chouf mountains are Jumblatt’s traditional power base. The hills north of Beirut are controlled by Geagea.
One civilian was killed when a tank skidded off a rain-drenched mountain road in the Christian enclave and crushed his car, authorities said.
″At present we are deploying along hilltops that command our supply lines. We’ll be fanning across the regions gradually,″ the captain said.
Along the coast, Christian and Druse militiamen abandoned sandbagged positions as the army advanced.
Geagea’s militia gathered around 300 military vehicles and 16 helicopters beside the coastal highway in Halat, north of Beirut, to turn them over to the Lebanese army.
Scores of Soviet-made T-55 tanks, howitzers and multiple rocket launchers were assembled for collection by some of the 40,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, who are helping Lebanon’s army enforce the peace accord.
The two-month deployment constitutes Phase 2 of the peace plan. It should expand control of President Elias Hrawi’s Syrian-backed government to 1,000 square miles, or a quarter of Lebanon. Christian and Druse militias are to turn in their weapons during that period.
The army purged Beirut and its immediate surroundings of militias in December when it implemented the first phase of an Arab League-sponsored peace accord.
Jumblatt and Geagea led the main fighting forces in the civil war, Both agreed to the peace accord reached in Taif, Saudi Arabia, in October 1989.
The next phase is expected to put the army in direct confrontation with the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, or Party of God, a major Shiite Muslim faction.
Defense Minister Michel Murr told a news conference Tuesday the army would begin moving into the rest of Lebanon on July 1.
Hezbollah says it will not block army deployment, but will not lay down its arms until Israel withdraws from a border enclave it occupies in south Lebanon.
Israel established a 440-square-mile ″security zone″ in 1985 when it withdrew from south Lebanon after an invasion and three-year occuption.
The Israeli-supported, 2,500-strong South Lebanon Army in the zone will not be affected by the Lebanese army deployment.
In Damascus this week, visiting President Hashemi Rafsanjani of Iran persuaded his ally, Syrian President Hafez Assad, to postpone disarming Hezbollah and to allow a contingent of 3,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards to remain in the eastern Bekaa Valley.
Hezbollah is linked to factions holding most of the 13 Westerners missing in Lebanon and believed held hostage. The hostage issue makes it difficult for the Syrians and the Lebanese army to crack down on the Shiite militants.
North of the security zone, the Palestine Liberation Organization maintains 6,000 guerrillas defending Palestinian refugee camps against Israeli attacks. They also refuse to down arms, but accept army deployment in territories they control.