At least 38 people were killed and 110 wounded today in Lebanon’s bloodiest battle in two years, and the Christian military government demanded that Muslim-backed Syrian troops leave the country immediately.
Shells poured down around homes, schools and hospitals on both sides of Beirut’s Green Line, and artillery and rocket barrages shut down the airport and harbors. The fighting quickly spread to nearby mountains and east to the Bekaa Valley.
Artillery fire slammed into the Beirut-Damascus highway, Lebanon’s only link to the outside world after the fighting closed harbors and Beirut airport.
It was the first major battle between the Christian and Muslim governments that have competed for power since Parliament failed to elect a new president last September.
Although Lebanon has been at war with itself for almost 14 years, the larger Christian-Muslim conflict has for about two years taken second place to struggles within various religious groups.
The dead, according to security and hospital sources, numbered 22 in Muslim West Beirut, 7 civilians and 3 soldiers in the Christian east and 6 in Shtoura in eastern Lebanon’s Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley.
The deaths in West Beirut included a number of schoolchildren caught by an early-morning barrage from the Christians.
Screaming mothers were seen running through streets to rescue children from schools in areas hit by shelling or from buses stranded in the open.
An eyewitness in West Beirut saw cars burning in the streets, some with people trapped inside.
Muslim gunners in turn pounded Christian areas with artillery and tank fire.
The wounded on both sides numbered at least 110.
The sound of exploding shells mingled with thunder as the two sides blasted each other under torrential rain.
As the shelling escalated, Lebanon’s Christian military government demanded that Syrian troops leave the country at once.
“The cabinet decided to take all measures for the immediate withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon as soon as possible. We will take local, regional and international measures,” Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun, head of the military government in Christian East Beirut, said at a news conference.