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Lebanon Army Controls Key Road : Christian, Druze Militias Pull Back on Coastal Highway

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Times Staff Writer

In a rare glimmer of hope after months of sectarian strife, a Lebanese army brigade composed of Muslims and Christians was succesfully deployed Saturday along the coastal highway south of Beirut.

Soldiers of the newly created 12th Brigade rode jeeps, armored personnel carriers and trucks piled with furniture along the road to a point just south of here, 18 miles from the capital.

The militias of the Christian Lebanese Forces and the Druze Progressive Socialist Party, which have kept the road closed since last February, warily pulled back from their positions--but only a few feet--as the soldiers rumbled past.

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The army action brought the Lebanese soldiers just two miles from the front lines of the Israeli army along the Awwali River. The Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1982.

Col. Hassan Tout, a Sunni Muslim who commands the 1,200-man Lebanese brigade, said the only hitch in the army’s deployment Saturday was the Israeli seizure of the small town of Bisri, which made it impossible for the Lebanese to take up their positions in the town.

Daily Mayhem Continues Otherwise, the few civilians who remained in their homes along the road tossed rice in a gesture of welcome. Smiling soldiers placed red carnations in the barrels of their machine guns.

The deployment, which has been the subject of acrimonious bickering for several months, followed the imposition of a “security plan” for Beirut last July.

The Beirut plan succeeded in removing heavy weapons from the city but did little to stop gunfights and the other daily mayhem along the city’s boulevards.

On Saturday alone, two car bombs exploded in predominantly Muslim West Beirut, injuring at least 16 people.

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The army’s move southward from Beirut was considered important because of the likelihood that Israeli forces, which are the targets of almost daily guerrilla attacks, will make either a partial or complete withdrawal in the coming months.

The Lebanese government is particularly concerned that a sudden Israeli withdrawal could result in the massacre of civilians by the armed militias in isolated pockets along the coast.

Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun, commander of the Lebanese army, said in an order of the day published Saturday that the purpose of the deployment is to reach southern Lebanon, “which has been yearning to meet its (Lebanese) soldiers and protectors.”

Before the opening of the road, the only route to southern Lebanon was through the Druze-controlled Shouf Mountains to a crossing point between Bater and Jezzine. Christians wanting to visit the south had to travel by boat.

During the past few months, while the opening of the road has been debated, the surrounding region, known as the Kharoub, has been the scene of particularly savage artillery duels between Druze and Christian militiamen.

The scope of the violence became apparent Friday when the two groups began pulling their heavy equipment out of the region.

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According to a report in the independent newspaper An Nahar, for example, the Druze withdrew 70 Soviet-made tanks, 24 75-millimeter and 76-millimeter artillery pieces and 12 Katyusha rocket launchers.

Col. Tout established his command post in the Jiye power station, which has been the target of Druze gunners for several months. The shelling caused blackouts in the capital for extended periods and resulted in the imposition of power rationing.

Jean Ghanem, head of the Lebanese Forces militia coalition for the region, said he was satisfied with the progress of the army’s deployment Saturday.

“The Lebanese Forces are not going to withdraw from here,” Ghanem told reporters in Jiye, a Christian town. “These men have their homes here. Withdrawal is only for those who are not from the area. But only the army will control the road.”

A force of 200 Lebanese national policemen had been deployed earlier in the week to prepare for the coming of the army, removing earthen barricades and land mines from the points where the road was cut by the two militias just south of the town of Damour.

While the militias were dismantling their checkpoints along the roadside Saturday, both groups continued to stop travellers using the highway for the first time.

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“We are going to move fom the road only three meters (about nine yards),” said Mansour Maatar, a Lebanese Forces official south of Damour. “We have learned our lesson before; you can’t trust the Druze or anyone else.”

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