Christian military leader Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun vowed today to drive Syrian troops out of Lebanon even if the battle destroys Beirut.
Beirut has been flattened at least eight times in its history, Aoun told a news conference during a lull from 17 days of artillery battles across the Christian-Muslim divide.
“It makes no difference if we have to build a new one now. Let it be the ninth time,” he said.
The artillery battle, in which the Syrians this week joined the Muslim Druze troops, resumed in the afternoon after a 14-hour lull.
Police had no immediate report on casualties but have given the total in previous action as 81 people killed and 253 wounded, most of them civilians.
It is the worst fighting since 1985 in Lebanon’s 14-year-old civil war and magnifies a political crisis that arose last fall, creating sectarian army commands and competing Christian and Muslim governments.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman said the United States is withdrawing a military “technical assistance team at the Defense Ministry as part of the embassy’s policy of reducing American personnel due to the current situation.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said one member of the three-man team already is out of the country on vacation. The Americans came to Lebanon in 1983 to train army personnel in the use of U.S.-made equipment.
Aoun told the news conference that the Americans are being pulled out shortly before the end of their term and that “their withdrawal will not have any effect on the army.”
He heads the interim Christian government in addition to commanding the 20,000 Christians in the Lebanese army, who are much better equipped than the 22,000 Muslims led by Maj. Gen. Sami Khatib.
Khatib’s men have helped blockade the 310-square-mile Christian enclave north and east of Beirut but appear to have stayed out of the fighting, which began two days after Aoun blockaded illegal ports operated by Muslim militias.
The Christian commander held his news conference at the presidential palace in suburban Baabda after meeting with Kuwait’s ambassador to Syria, Ahmed Jassem, who told reporters that they discussed “a cease-fire and a solution to the present confrontation.”
Jassem saw Aoun again after a session in Muslim West Beirut with Salim Hoss, the Sunni Muslim premier of the Syrian-backed Muslim government, then returned to Syria without comment.
Aoun said his confrontation with the Syrians and Walid Jumblatt’s Druze militia is “a nationalist march to liberate Lebanon.”
“It is the responsibility of the whole people,” he said. “The life of the Lebanese should no more be in the hands of a Syrian soldier who can pull the trigger any minute.”
Syria is “a terrorist country,” he said, and “we can’t figure out how a terrorist country can have a peacekeeping role.”