Gunmen firing automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades ambushed a motorcade in the Christian sector of Beirut today, and the presidential palace said it was an attempt to assassinate President Amin Gemayel.
The palace said Gemayel was not in the motorcade, but it added that eight of the Christian president’s bodyguards and aides were wounded.
The New Year’s Eve attack occurred several hours after a nationwide cease-fire was declared in effect as part of a Syrian-sponsored effort to end Lebanon’s 10 years of civil war.
The ambush touched off fighting between Christian militias but did not shatter the truce along the Green Line separating Beirut’s Christian and Muslim sectors.
The Lebanese Forces Christian militia declared the attack was not on Gemayel but was an attempt to kill one of its officials, security chief Assad Shaftari.
A militia communique said Shaftari, 29, was unhurt when his car was hit by gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades. The militia said the ambush was set by 50 assailants in the Christian suburb of Zalka on Beirut’s northeastern edge.
One of Shaftari’s bodyguards was killed and another seriously wounded, according to the militia, which is Lebanon’s strongest Christian force.
The conflicting accounts of the ambush reflected the power struggle between the Lebanese Forces and Gemayel’s Falange Party for dominance in the Christian heartland north of Beirut.
The Falange has declared its opposition to the Syrian-sponsored cease-fire agreement the Lebanese Forces signed in Damascus Saturday with the main Druze and Shia Muslim militias. Shaftari was one of the two main Christian delegates during three months of negotiations that culminated in the signing of the armistice accord.
Neither the presidential palace nor the Lebanese Forces identified the attackers. But there were no reports of Muslim militiamen in the area and it appeared that Christians were involved in setting the ambush.
According to independent witnesses, speaking on condition of anonymity, the shooting broke out as a convoy of presidential limousines and Shaftari’s motorcade drove along Zalka’s coastal highway.
A communique from the presidential palace said the 43-year-old Gemayel “coincidently was not in his limousine” when his motorcade came under attack.
The president’s bulletproof limousine was hit by gunfire, and three escorting cars were severely damaged, the communique said. Two of the eight injured aides and bodyguards suffered serious wounds.
The Lebanese Forces communique said Shaftari’s bodyguards exchanged fire with the ambushers and an undetermined number of assailants were killed or wounded.