Pro-Iranian militiamen overran positions of Syrian-backed fighters south of Beirut on Friday in a surprise attack that triggered an exchange with Syrian troops and broke a truce arranged by Tehran and Damascus, security sources and witnesses said.
In the battles, dozens of gunmen from the pro-Iranian militia Hezbollah (Party of God) attacked forces of the Shia Muslim militia Amal entrenched on the eastern side of the Syrian-controlled airport highway.
Security sources said the Amal gunmen, their fortifications smashed, were forced to retreat behind Syrian lines and started firing at Hezbollah's newly captured positions, triggering exchanges with automatic weapons during which Syrian troops were caught in the cross-fire.
Syrians Open Fire
The Syrian soldiers, who control Beirut airport and surrounding areas, opened fire at the Hezbollah positions to warn against moving the fighting to Syrian-controlled areas, killing one Hezbollah gunman and wounding three, the sources said.
Hezbollah has taken control of about 90% of the 14 square miles of the southern suburbs adjacent to the airport road in fierce battles that broke out a week ago.
The fighting that has left at least 175 people dead and 500 wounded stopped Wednesday after telephone negotiations between Syrian President Hafez Assad and Iranian President Ali Khamenei, Lebanese television said.
Syria, which has 30,000 troops in Lebanon and deployed in Muslim West Beirut in February, 1986, to restore peace between the city's rival Shia militias, supports Amal.Iran backs the Hezbollah forces.
Meanwhile, the United States said it is encouraged by signs of willingness among Lebanese leaders to reach a power-sharing agreement that would enable orderly elections in Lebanon this September, the State Department said Friday.
The remarks by spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley marked the first time the Reagan administration has expressed optimism publicly about the five-month shuttle that veteran diplomat April Glaspie has been conducting between Lebanon and Syria.
Glaspie is mediating between Syria's President Hafez Assad and Lebanese President Amin Gemayel for Syrian-backed reforms that would grant more political influence to Lebanon's Muslim majority.
Gemayel and his Christian backers have been reluctant to cede their dominance over Lebanon's political system in which the post of president has traditionally been reserved for a Christian.
"I would say we're encouraged in our conviction that responsible Lebanese leaders want to find fair guidelines for a process to establish a central government exercising full authority over a unified sovereign state," Oakley said.
"In that state, all Lebanese would enjoy comparable opportunities for advancement," she said.
"Accordingly, we believe an agreement on such guidelines is not only possible, but we hope can occur before the presidential election this summer," she added.
Under Lebanon's constitution, elections must be held before Sept. 23. No date has been set. Gemayel is not running for a second six-year term.