Battle for Beirut Rages in ‘Downpour of Death’

From Times Wire Services

A withering hail of shells, rockets and mortar fire blasted Beirut on Sunday in one of the most ferocious blitzes of Lebanon’s 14-year-old civil war.

Shellfire hit the city’s airport, and radio reports said the home of the U.S. ambassador was struck during fierce duels that began Saturday night between Syrian gunners and Christian army units. Police reported 13 people were killed.

Syrian gunners and their Muslim militia allies poured more than 8,000 rounds--at a rate of up to 100 per minute--on East Beirut and the Christian suburbs northeast of the city in 24 hours, a police spokesman said.


Christian soldiers of the Lebanese army commander, Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun, struck back with howitzers, firing at least 3,000 rounds on Syrian positions in Muslim West Beirut, the central mountains and east Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, the spokesman said.

The spokesman said eight people were killed and 20 wounded in East Beirut and five killed and seven wounded in West Beirut. The latest casualties raised the overall toll to at least 140 killed and more than 460 wounded in 26 days of fighting.

Huddled in Shelters

Casualties were low Sunday relative to the ferocity of the bombardment because throughout Beirut and its suburbs, tens of thousands of residents huddled in underground shelters.

“I don’t care who’s fighting who or why,” screamed Yolla Chaker, a Christian, when she was reached by telephone at her apartment building’s shelter. “This inferno, this downpour of death must stop.”

“It’s a new day of terror and madness in our life,” said Antoine Nehmeh, one of 200 people in a shelter in East Beirut. “The whole area is trembling. People are on the verge of hysteria.”

“The belt of fire rings the area,” said the Christian-run Voice of Lebanon radio station. “Until now no voice can rise above the thud of artillery shells. Syrian fire sows more terror among civilians.”

Acting Premier Salim Hoss, in an appeal broadcast by Muslim radio stations, suggested that he and Aoun should resign if it would help end the fighting. Hoss heads a mostly Muslim Cabinet vying for legitimacy with Aoun’s Christian Cabinet.

“I appeal to all those pulling gun triggers to stop shooting at once, stop this blood bath, stop this massacre,” Hoss said.

Sunday’s Muslim fatalities included four soldiers stationed at the capital’s international airport in southern Beirut, which was bombarded by Christian gunners. Police said that fires broke out at the airport, which was shut down 23 days ago because of the fighting.

The fighting began in early March when Aoun’s forces blockaded militia-run harbors in an effort to collect taxes at five government ports.

The Muslim militiamen and their Syrian allies retaliated by sealing off the region where Lebanon’s 1 million Christians live.