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Pro-Syrian Militiamen Blamed : Massacre Ends Fundamentalist Surge in Tripoli

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Special to the Washington Post

Some people cowered in corners with their arms around their families when pro-Syrian militiamen called their names that December night.

Others ran out trustingly. Still others tried to hide in vegetable stalls, and the more adventurous tried to flee.

They were all shot, mostly in the head, according to witnesses, hospital sources and rescue workers. “Many were in their pajamas and night clothes, and nothing indicated they were fighters,” according to one witness, who said he had watched as relief workers cleared away the bodies.

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More Than 200 Killed

“I brought down 15 bodies from inside the houses,” one rescuer said. “Three were women. Women and children were not a direct target but appeared to have been in the way. They all had gunshot wounds in the head.”

More than 200 Sunni Muslim fundamentalists, relatives and neighbors died in a Syrian-backed sweep into the shabby, maze-like slum of Tabbaneh, a nest for religious fanatics with dreams of transforming this northern port city into an Islamic fortress for the faithful.

When it was over, in the view of many observers here, a fundamentalist resurgence--one suspected of being linked to the Palestine Liberation Organization--had been averted, and Syria, in removing the challenge, had taken a major step toward restoring its recently faltering supremacy in Lebanon.

A feeling of terror has gripped people in Tripoli, who refuse to be associated with that unmentionable weekend in December. “What happened was unnatural, and we have to save our heads,” a Tripoli businessman said in a hushed conversation in his candle-lit office.

Links to Arafat

Syrian suspicions of stepped-up activity by Islamic zealots with links to PLO chief Yasser Arafat and clandestine preparations for a plot to seize control of a strategic block inside the city in a surprise offensive on New Year’s Eve touched off a wave of arrests, sources in the Islamic Unification Movement said.

Secular-oriented and leftist Lebanese factions as well as the majority of Tripoli’s inhabitants have watched the gradual return of the Islamic Unification Movement, also known as Tawhid, with trepidation. The group’s unchecked influence between 1983 and September, 1985, brought a foretaste of Islamic rule imposed by the force of arms and blind religious fervor.

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Shops selling alcohol were dynamited, as were women’s beauty shops run by male hairdressers. Christian parochial schools were asked to offer Koranic teachings, and women were warned against appearing in public without headdress or long sleeves. In 1984, the fundamentalists cracked down on Lebanese Communists in Tripoli, killing at least 50 and driving them out of the city along with other leftist parties.

Although the largest Muslim fundamentalist movements in the Middle East are Shia, there are also prominent Sunni fundamentalist groups here, in Egypt, Asia and elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims traditionally have been sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. Most Palestinians--except for a Christian minority--are Sunnis. After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the crushing blow dealt to the PLO, many young Lebanese Sunnis who had allied themselves with Arafat’s Fatah organization out of Arab idealism turned to the Tawhid for religion and what they saw as a purer form of struggle.

On Dec. 18, Sami Turk, a Sunni Muslim fundamentalist commander in charge of recruiting and reorganizing armed underground cells in Tabbaneh, was taken in by Syrian soldiers, according to officials of the Syrian National Social Party.

Irate bands loyal to activist “princes” of the Tawhid took to the streets with guns. They shot and killed 15 Syrian soldiers at checkpoints around the city against the will of Sheik Said Shaban, head of the Tawhid movement. Shaban, a cleric with close ties to Tehran, had denounced the fundamentalist plot to take over Tripoli and described it as “sheer folly that can only bring woe and devastation.” But his counsel did not prevail.

Within hours, shortly after midnight, militiamen from leftist Lebanese parties and Alawite Muslim groups allied with Syria poured into the dusty, crowded dwellings of Tabbaneh, while Syrian soldiers ringed the area. House raids in search of weapons set off a 36-hour battle with rockets and artillery barrages that raged until noon on Dec. 20.

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Ambulances were barred from the area until then by militiamen sealing off exits to prevent Tawhid elements from escaping. Rescue workers were warned that wounded casualties would be “executed on the spot” if attempts were made to remove them.

The day after, bodies littered the vegetable market, many of them covered by rotting fruit, between overturned pushcarts, a witness said.

There was no reliable breakdown of civilian and military casualties. Two buildings were brought down on top of their occupants by heavy shelling, residents and witnesses said.

The Syrian version of the Tawhid plot was that a number of buildings had been rented as bases and launching points for the armed fundamentalist conspirators.

The low-income Tabbaneh district, with rows of shacks and fallen houses, is home for laborers, roving street vendors, bakery and dockworkers and bearded Sunni Muslim preachers.

Syria’s military intelligence chief in Lebanon, Col. Ghazi Kanaan, told the An Nida newspaper, organ of the Lebanese Communist Party, that fundamentalists had been slipping into Tripoli by boat from the Christian port of Juniyah and from mountain areas in the east. “Our role was to hunt down the gunmen,” he said, referring to Tawhid plotters. “We arrested most of them, and those who resisted were killed in the clashes. We struck them in the cradle.”

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“What happened was not a battle but a cleaning operation,” a Tripoli lawyer said.

The bodies of 10 Pakistani workers in pajamas from a Tripoli hotel were lying on the pavement, a witness said.

Bullet-Riddled Body

In Zahriyah, a neighborhood adjoining Tabbaneh, a Tawhid member was gunned down. A total of 50 bullets were found in his legs and arms.

A rescue worker drove him to a hospital but was followed by a pro-Syrian militiaman who wanted to shoot him, the witness said. A nurse at the hospital refused to let the militiaman enter to kill the Tawhid member.

“The fighter wanted to finish him off, but the nurse didn’t let them. The man was X-rayed and his legs and arms put in casts, but he didn’t make it. He died two hours later because he had lost too much blood,” a rescue worker said.

Rescue teams said residents were heartened when ambulances started reaching their area because it meant that the worst was over.

A survivor and her daughter said the Syrians had come with lists of names. Leftist sources in Tripoli said they had coordinated intelligence information with the Syrians to convince them that they should do something about the infiltration of fundamentalists.

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“When my son was called by name, he decided to go out. As soon as he walked out the door they shot him,” the woman said. Her husband followed and was also killed. Unlike the son, he was not a member of the Tawhid, she claimed.

Many relatives of Tawhid victims did not go to identify victims at the morgue, nor did they accompany their dead for burial. Syrian soldiers were taking down names of relatives at the hospital and at nearby checkpoints.

300 Fighters

An estimated 300 fighters, mainly from the Arab Democratic Party, the Lebanese Communist Party, the pro-Syrian Baath Party and the Syrian National Social Party took part in the dragnet, which spread to other neighborhoods.

An official of the Syrian National Social Party said the Pink Panthers, the militia of the Arab Democratic Party, had many vendettas to settle with the Sunnis and could have been carried away.

After the weekend the search was extended to villages in the Dinniyeh valley to the east. Residents and Tawhid sources said the Syrian army’s conduct had been more sparing than that of its Lebanese proxies.

“It was like the role of the Israeli army versus the Christian militias during Sabra and Chatilla,” one source said. Hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians were slain by Christian militiamen in September, 1982, as Israelis cordoned off the two refugee camps.

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There is a visceral kind of hatred between the Alawites, an offshoot Shia sect of Islam, and the Sunni Muslims of Tripoli. Traditional Sunni Muslim dominance in this town of 200,000 has been challenged by a swelling number of Alawites, who drifted from neighboring Syria and set up roots in the Syrian-controlled north through intermarriage and trade links. Syrian President Hafez Assad is an Alawite, as are most of the influential members of his government, although Alawites form a minority in Syria.

Some members of the Muslim Brotherhood from Syria--a sect banned there because of its opposition to Assad’s rule--also have converged on Tripoli as a haven.

Alawite-Sunni animosity has been carried over by the migrating communities. Alawites are clustered in the Baal Mohsen area overlooking Tabbaneh, and the two quarters are separated only by one street, a traditional confrontation zone in Tripoli.

A more immediate concern for the Syrians has been the quiet pre-arrangement of Tawhid strongholds with the citadel here as a launching point. Key princes--an Islamic ruling title dating from the days of caliphs succeeding the prophet Mohammed--have been operating outside Tripoli, funneling money and arms to their supporters.

One of them, Hashem Minkara, prince of the Mina area, the arcaded Tripoli port district known for its winding steps and narrow alleyways, was tracked down and captured by Syrian forces in the remote, inaccessible hills of Sir Dinniyeh, east of Tripoli. The Syrians reportedly had to use helicopters to reach the hideout in rugged back country where Minkara and his men were holed up in caves.

Minkara had fled to the hills after he was injured in a Syrian-imposed siege of Tripoli in September, 1985, during which Syria’s leftist Lebanese allies dealt a severe blow to the fundamentalists.

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PLO Left Arms

When Arafat and his men made their final stand in Tripoli in 1983 before leaving Lebanon, they left their heavy weapons in the hands of followers of Shaban. The Tawhid chief severed links with Arafat at the behest of Iran two years ago. Arafat had forged close links with Shaban, Minkara and two other princes, Kanaan Naji and Khalil Akkawi, who was assassinated last year.

Naji and Minkara maintained behind-the-scenes ties with Arafat, according to Tawhid sources. When Naji left Tripoli in 1985, he went to Tunis, which served as PLO headquarters, and returned to Lebanon last spring. Naji established a base for himself in Sidon, in the south, where Arafat’s men recently scored a victory against the Shia Muslim Amal movement, Syria’s closest ally in Lebanon.

A Tawhid source said Naji decided to move in Tripoli since it appeared that Syria’s grip over Lebanon was being loosened. These sources cited Naji as the main financier of the aborted Tawhid plan and the effort to regroup and mobilize followers loyal to him, Minkara and the Akkawi clan. The same source said Naji received funds from Arafat.

Syrian National Social Party officials said that if the Tawhid plot had succeeded, it would have drawn Syrian troops into a long battle and sapped their military strength in Lebanon to the advantage of the guerrilla movement.

Although there has not been a visible Palestinian role on the ground in Tripoli, fighting there almost certainly would have engulfed the nearby Palestinian camps, Baddawi and Nahr Bared, and prompted Arab intervention.

“Syria decided to restore its supremacy in Lebanon from Tripoli, and what helped is that the Tawhid moved before they were ready,” one source said.

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