Savage Fighting in East Beirut
BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Christian forces fought hand to hand in a savage battle for a key high-rise building today as Gen. Michel Aoun’s troops sought to capture the headquarters of a rival militia. At least 46 people were killed and 77 wounded overnight.
Aoun’s tanks and howitzer batteries pounded the low-income residential districts of Nabaa and Sin el-Fil on the northeastern edge of Beirut’s Christian sector.
By police count, the showdown between Aoun’s troops and Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces for dominance of the 310-square-mile Christian enclave has killed 754 and wounded 2,061 since it broke out Jan. 30.
The confrontation, the fiercest among Christians in the nearly 15-year-old civil war, also has caused property damage estimated at $750 million.
A police spokesman reported fierce fighting for control of a high-rise building that commands the main street separating Nabaa and Sin el-Fil, which are traditional strongholds for Geagea’s militia.
The 12-story building ″repeatedly changed hands. Commando units of Aoun’s army troops stormed it at first light. Geagea’s militiamen took it back in a swift assault around 10 a.m. By noon, the army was re-attacking it,″ the spokesman said.
The spokesman, who cannot be named in line with regulations, said a casualty report was not immediately available from today’s clashes.
Maronite Catholic Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir urged Geagea and Aoun to ″have mercy on the population and observe a cease-fire immediately.″
Sfeir threatened, ″whoever gives the order to shoot and whoever obeys such orders will be excommunicated.″
Both Geagea and Aoun are Maronites, the Christian community which has dominated Lebanon since independence from France in 1943.
The police spokesman, said Aoun’s U.S.-made m-48 tanks, which advanced across the flat terrain to the edges of Nabaa Thursday, were ″trying to shoot their way″ across the densely populated district.
″They are firing their cannons at close range, shattering apartments, demolishing cars and knocking out anything that faces them,″ the spokesman, said.
″They are applying scorched earth combat tactics, the whole district is on fire,″ the spokesman said.
The attack, he said, obviously aims at reaching the seaside boulevard on the western edge of Beirut to cut off the Lebanese Forces command headquarters from its fighters in the hilltop district of Ashrafiyeh.
Geagea’s experienced street fighters, entrenched in the narrow alleys of Nabaa and the neighboring working-class district of Sin el-Fil, were confronting the tanks with armor-piercing grenades and recoilless cannons, he said.
Aoun’s gunners, using Soviet-designed 130mm howitzers, pounded the militia- held districts at the rate of 12 shells per minute, police said.
Smoke billowed from the embattled districts and the thuds of exploding shells accompanied by the whooshing sound of outgoing rockets echoed across the Lebanese capital.
The blood bank at the Lebanese Committee of the Red Cross issued repeated radio appeals for urgent blood donations to cope with the influx of casualties.
The advance through Nabaa and Sin el-Fil, according to the military source, was ″very slow, with a high casualty rate. The militia is putting up a tough resistance.″
Geagea’s 6,000-member militia, which has a reserve force of 30,000, is facing Aoun’s 19,000-member force.
Geagea’s command, in a communique, said Aoun’s soldiers ″failed to achieve any significant gain″ since the attack was launched Thursday, shattering a 12-day lull that prevailed over the Christian enclave since a mediation committee called a cease-fire Feb. 17.
Aoun has rejected parliament’s election last fall of President Elias Hrawi, who has pledged to enact a peace pact. Aoun says he opposes the peace plan because it does not require the pullout of 40,000 Syrian troops, deployed under a 1976 Arab League mandate to keep the peace in the civil war.
Hrawi fired Aoun as army commander, but Aoun refused to step down.