Incessant Artillery Barrages Turning Beirut Into Ghost City
The Beirut exodus resumed Saturday after three nights of relentless artillery exchanges between Syrian and Christian forces. Roads out of the Lebanese capital were reported jammed with trucks and cars loaded with families fleeing the bombardments that have taken more than 500 lives over four months.
Reports from the city, monitored in Nicosia, put the remaining population on both the Christian and Muslim sides of the city at 250,000, according to police. Before the shelling began last March, Beirut’s population was 1.5 million.
Now, according to the police figures, five of six Beirutis have fled the shelling, leaving behind businesses and homes for safety in the eastern mountains and southern villages.
The casualties in the Friday shelling that let up before dawn Saturday were reported at eight dead and 42 wounded. Apartment buildings on both sides were pierced by rocket fire during the night, and smoke hung over the city Saturday morning.
Following a recent pattern, the big guns opened up overnight, initiated by Syrian fire against Christian ports. The shelling has primarily been aimed at ships trying to run a Syrian naval and artillery blockade to resupply the Christian forces led by Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun, the Lebanese army commander and head of a Christian Cabinet based in East Beirut.
Premier Salim Hoss heads a rival Muslim Cabinet on the west side of the city, but the military power in the west is a Syrian force of about 5,000 regular army troops, backed by another 35,000 Syrian soldiers deployed outside Beirut, mostly in the Bekaa Valley.
The Syrian guns are supplemented by fire from the Druze militia of Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party. Aoun, whose army is predominantly Christian, receives support from the Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia formed around the old Falangist Party and headed by Samir Geagea.
As the Syrians--who are nominally in Lebanon under a 1976 Arab League peacekeeping mandate--and the Christians hammered each other and the civilian population of Beirut, Arab diplomats gathered Saturday in Rabat, Morocco, to try to find some way to end the fighting. An Arab League cease-fire declared in May was ignored by both sides. Syria refused to lift its blockade of the Christian ports.
A subsequent Arab summit assigned the kings of Morocco and Saudi Arabia and the president of Algeria to work out a formula for peace. They floated a plan for the members of the Lebanese Parliament, who have now been serving for nearly two decades--and dying off, since warfare has prevented any elections since 1972--to meet outside Lebanon and discuss political solutions, free from the armed intimidation of Beirut. Aoun, however, is reluctant to allow Christian parliamentary deputies to discuss politics until the present military standoff is settled.
Reports from Rabat, Morocco, indicated that the Arab leaders will try to bring international pressure to bear on both Aoun and Syrian President Hafez Assad, but previous efforts by the United States, the Soviet Union and France have failed to silence the guns.
This current round of the Lebanese civil war, which began in 1985 and now has become in part a proxy war for regional Arab powers and the Israelis, started in March, when Aoun attempted to shut down Muslim militia port operations that were denying his government a reported $100 million in annual port revenues and permitting the importation of arms for militias opposed to the Christians.
Now, four months later, the shelling has become fairly indiscriminate, although the Syrians concentrate on Christian port facilities, fuel depots and Aoun’s presidential palace. The Christian gunners try to knock out the Syrian guns, which has made the Syrians an increasingly unpopular presence in West Beirut.