Christian Army, Moslem Militia Shell Residential Areas
BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Christian army units and Moslem militiamen fought an artillery duel Tuesday that rained hundreds of shells on Beirut’s residential areas and killed at least 39 people, most of them civilians.
Police said 96 people were wounded in the worst fighting since 1985 in Lebanon’s 14-year-old sectarian civil war, and most of the casualties were in Moslem west Beirut. They said two children and three Syrian soldiers were among the dead and four Lebanese soldiers were wounded.
The day-long battle between Christian forces and Walid Jumblatt’s Druse militia began as people were going to work, catching them by surprise, and shells blasted cars to bits during rush hour.
Schools sent children home. Merchants in the city’s Moslem and Christian sectors slammed down their shutters. Radios blared warnings to stay indoors.
″It’s moronic. They are the gardeners of violence,″ Fatima Haidar, a teacher of English, said through the sound of artillery fire while closing her secondary school in Moslem west Beirut’s Verdun district.
″May God chop off the hands of all leaders on both sides of the capital 3/8 They are butchers 3/8″ said a Sunni Moslem woman who gave her name only as Fatima.
Ships left port for open water. Aircraft flew to Cyprus to escape shelling at the airport.
Fighting began March 8, two days after Aoun impose a blockade on illegal ports run by Moslem militias. Police gave total casualties since as 45 dead and 128 wounded.
The confrontation threatens efforts of Arab League mediators to resolve a political crisis that created Christian and Moslem governments and has split the army into sectarian commands.
Gen. Michel Aoun, who leads a Christian military cabinet and commands the 20,000 Christian troopers, said Tuesday: ″It’s a war of liberation against Syrian occupation forces. The battle has begun.″
Syria supports the Moslem government of Prime Minister Salim Hoss. The Syrians have 40,000 soldiers in Lebanon, including Beirut, and President Hafez Assad has become the nation’s main power broker in the chaos of civil war.
In midafternoon, police said, Aoun’s forces shelled the border town of Chtaura, command headquarters for Syrian troops in east Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, and cut the Damascus-Beirut highway.
Gen. Sami Khatib, chosen by Hoss to command the army’s 22,000 Moslem soldiers, has kept out of the Christian-Druse battle. His troops are poorly equipped and scattered throughout Lebanon’s Moslem territory, which generally covers west and south Beirut, south Lebanon and coastal areas.
Aoun accused the Syrians of starting the artillery duels between his and Jumblatt’s men Tuesday by shelling both Moslem and Christian neighborhoods.
In Damascus, the official daily Al-Baath said Aoun’s accusations were false, aimed aimed at ″devastating Syria’s constructive role in Lebanon.″
Syrian sources said privately Aoun wanted to draw Syrian troops into the fight but Assad did not want an armed clash.
Speaking to reporters at the presidential palace at suburban Baabda, in Christian territory five miles northeast of Beirut, Gen. Aoun said: ″My government has decided to take all the necessary measures to force the Syrian army to withdraw from Lebanon.″
He said he asked the Arab League and its mediation committee to ″intervene at once to ensure the withdrawal of the Syrian occupation army.″
″Lebanon cannot possibly stay on under the mercy of the Syrian cannon,″ he said at the news conference, broadcast by Christian radio and television stations.
His office at the Defense Ministry, near the palace, was hit by artillery fire. The television station run by Aoun’s Christian government said Syria fired on the ministry just before the news conference in an attempt to ″assassinate him.″
It showed Aoun’s desk, which appeared demolished, and leather chairs and metal filing cabinets covered with the rubble of chandeliers and walls. Aoun was shown inspecting the wreckage and said: ″It’s not by chance that the office was shelled. Syria is a terrorist country.″
A howitzer salvo landed in a crowded street of west Beirut, setting seven cars afire, said Associated Press photographer Ali Mohammed.
″The charred body of one motorist was pulled by rescuers from one car as pedestrians sprinted in panic for cover,″ he said.
Dozens of smoldering cars littered the Aishe Bakkar, Mossaitbeh, Noweiry and Ein Mreisseh districts of west Beirut and the Ashrafiyeh, Dora, Hazmieh and Bourj Hammoud neighborhoods of the Christian east, police said.
A shell landed near a bakery where a line of people waited to buy bread 200 yards from the prime minister’s home. Another demolished a sandwich kiosk outside a seaside restaurant in west Beirut’s Rouche district, a few yards from a Syrian army checkpoint.
Several rounds struck near the Middle East Hospital, close to the headquarters of the 12,000 Syrian soldiers who have taken charge of security in west Beirut and the Shiite Moslem southern slums.
Hoss accused Christian army gunners of shelling crowded intersections in west Beirut and called for an end to ″this shameful massacre, this new cycle of mad violence.″
Police said shells hit the Beirut port; the Christian harbor of Jounieh, 12 miles north of the capital, and the airport, which opened Monday after a two- day closure because of the fighting.
President Amin Gemayel chose Aoun to lead the government when his own six- year term expired in September and conservative Christians would not accept Syria’s nominees to succeed him. Moslems then pledged allegiance to Hoss.
By tradition, Lebanon’s president is Christian, the prime minister Sunni Moslem and the parliament speaker a Shiite Moslem.