Syria gave the Amal militia its first armor Tuesday--50 Soviet-made T-54 battle tanks that instantly made it one of Lebanon’s most powerful military forces.
The Shia Muslim militia will use the tanks “to confront the Palestinians,” said an informed government source who spoke on condition of anonymity. Amal fighters battled Palestinian guerrillas for weeks earlier this year in Beirut’s three refugee camps.
The aging T-54s, which mount 100-millimeter cannon, rumbled into Muslim West Beirut on Syrian army transporters.
Arrival of the tanks--a model used in combat in the Middle East, Angola and Vietnam and in fighting between India and Pakistan--dramatically altered the balance of power among Lebanon’s fractious Muslim militias and between Muslims and Christians.
Amal, largest of the Shia militias, fought for five weeks in May and June to crush Palestinian guerrillas seeking to rebuild the Lebanon power base they lost when they were driven out of the country during the 1982 Israeli invasion.
Later, the Amal militia took custody in Beirut of passengers from TWA’s hijacked Flight 847, releasing the last 39 hostages June 30.
Syria, Amal’s main backer and arms supplier, wants to smash Palestinian forces loyal to Yasser Arafat, chief of the Palestine Liberation Organization. President Hafez Assad of Syria, who has become Lebanon’s main power broker in the vacuum left by a decade of factional fighting, strongly opposes the agreement by Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan to move jointly toward peace negotiations with Israel.
Amal sources said most of the tanks were positioned around the Borj el Brajne Palestinian refugee camp in the Shia-dominated southern suburbs of Beirut.
The tanks dramatically boost the firepower of Nabih Berri’s 6,000-man Amal militia. Previously, Amal’s fighters were limited to multiple rocket launchers, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.