After a break of only two hours, the heaviest sustained shelling in the five-month battle of Beirut thundered with the dawn Saturday, obscuring the city in a shroud of smoke at the start of another day of destruction.
For the third straight day, Syrian and Christian artillerymen trained their guns across nearly half of Lebanon but poured the brunt of their fire on the ruined, near-lifeless capital and its suburbs. By Saturday night, police reports said 22 people had been killed and more than 110 wounded.
On Saturday, the French and Argentine embassies were hit by Syrian rockets, and one French Embassy guard was slightly wounded, security sources said. The U.S. and Brazilian embassies were also reported hit, according to Reuters news agency. No injuries were reported.
At nightfall, an orphanage in West Beirut was hit by shellfire from Christian forces, and three children were hospitalized in critical condition, according to the Muslim-run Voice of the People radio station.
Diplomats' Houses Under Fire
In overnight shelling, the residences of U.S. Ambassador John McCarthy and French Ambassador Rene Ala in suburban Yarze came under fire, the second time in 48 hours. No one was reported injured at either location.
The summer-dry hills south of the city were afire, according to reports reaching Cyprus, 90 miles offshore. Christian gunners searching for Syrian battery emplacements had shelled the hills and villages with rockets and cannon fire, turning the brush to flames.
A police spokesman said the Syrians showered the Christian bastion of East Beirut and the mountains beyond with volleys of rocket fire at 6 a.m. Saturday, ending a two-hour lull in the overnight shelling.
The Syrian rockets were answered by the heavy artillery of the predominantly Christian Lebanese army, commanded by Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun. Shells from Aoun's American-made 155-millimeter howitzers fell on suspected Syrian gun positions.
Shells and rockets rained down on some areas at the rate of 60 per minute, security sources said Saturday. On Thursday and Friday, residents had said rockets were falling at the rate of 40 a minute. At least 62 people have been killed and nearly 400 wounded over the three-day period.
At Khalde, south of Beirut, the incoming shells sent Syrian soldiers manning a checkpoint diving into roadside trenches. Some motorists hid under a highway bridge, according to press accounts.
In Paris on Saturday, President Francois Mitterrand launched an international peace initiative to end the artillery duels, asking Foreign Minister Roland Dumas to send envoys to the Syrian capital of Damascus, Moscow, Washington and the United Nations to try to end the shelling.
"The president has asked the government to do all it can to once again alert the international community and interested countries to the Lebanese problem," the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Officials will also consult members of the three-nation mission sent by the Arab League to find a solution to the conflict, it added.
In a communique issued July 31, a league committee--made up of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, King Hassan II of Morocco and Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid--declared it had reached an impasse, saying specifically that its proposals for peace in Lebanon were turned down by the Syrian government of Hafez Assad.
In fact, Syria on Saturday vowed to step up its fight against Aoun, saying his rule threatens the security of the Arab world.
"The conspiracy implemented by Aoun is clear," said the official Tishreen daily. "The Arab responsibility requires intensifying efforts to prevent its escalation because it does not only threaten Lebanon's security but that of the Arab world."
For his part, Aoun on Saturday called for sanctions to be imposed on the Damascus government.
"We call on the international community, especially the five permanent members of the United Nations, to impose a political and economic boycott on the Syrian regime, which has proved to be Nazi and barbaric," Aoun said in a statement.
In West Beirut, Sunni Muslim Premier Salim Hoss, who is backed by Syria, issued a statement reflecting the despair of many Beirut residents.
"We would not be exaggerating when we say that for the first time since the war broke out, we feel we are left blowing in the wind with no ceilings above our heads," said Hoss, who heads a Muslim Cabinet vying for power with Aoun's Christian military Cabinet.
The all-out artillery exchanges began Thursday afternoon, continued for 15 hours without letup and then eased for nine hours before resuming in Friday's 13-hour siege. On Friday, Christian shells fell on the eastern, Syrian-controlled city of Baalbek, 40 miles northeast of Beirut, enlarging the circumference of the artillery war.
More than 40 people were reported killed in shelling Thursday and Friday, pushing the death toll over the past five months to nearly 600. The city has been largely evacuated. The estimated 200,000 residents who remain in Beirut leave their homes and shelters only for food and water. Electricity is available no more than an hour a day, and often in the past week not at all. Telephone connections to Cyprus have been out for days.
Only the artillerymen are at work--and those who clean up the damage they leave.
"Nations are not built on shelling and destruction and the killing of men, women, children and old people," Sheik Mohammed Kabbani, the leader of Lebanon's Sunni Muslims, declared Friday, imploring both sides to silence their guns. "Where are the country's wise men to stop this tragedy, this mass murder, this blood bath?"
Kabbani's predecessor as Sunni grand mufti, Sheik Hassan Khaled, was assassinated in a car bombing in West Beirut last March, just as the artillery war began.
In Washington on Friday, the State Department issued another appeal for a cease-fire, again initially unheeded.
"The United States condemns the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent people and the renewed use of heavy-caliber weapons," said spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler. U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar met with the five permanent Security Council members on the situation.
During the Beirut hostage crisis that has gripped the outside world, the Syrian-Christian shelling eased. However, nearly two weeks ago, just three days into the crisis, the Arab League effort to halt the Beirut fighting broke down.
With the political initiative in collapse, diplomatic and press accounts from Beirut reported both sides moving up heavy arms. Syrian troop and truck movements were spotted in the eastern Bekaa Valley. Reinforcements on both sides were noted at Souq el Gharb, a bloodied ridgeline village southeast of Beirut where Christian and Muslim forces have faced off for years.
Several Beirut newspapers reported that the Syrians were placing tanks and heavy guns along the Green Line that separates the Muslim west and Christian east sectors of the capital. Throughout the more than 14 years of the sectarian Lebanese civil war, weapons along the dividing line have fallen in the category of small arms--rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
The developments of the past week seemed to signal that in the absence of a political settlement, the Syrian forces were preparing a direct land assault on the Christian enclave. That has not happened yet, but politicians are clearly discouraged by the vacuum left by the abandonment of the Arab League effort.
The field has been left to the military men.
Aoun has predicted that a "river of resistance" will rise in Lebanon's cities and villages against the 40,000-member Syrian army that controls two-thirds of the country. The determined, tough-talking artillery general, head of the Christian side of Lebanon's divided government, triggered the fighting in March when his forces blockaded Muslim militia ports. The Syrians blockaded Christian ports in return. When the shelling began, Aoun declared a "war of liberation" against the Syrians, who first entered Lebanon in 1976 as Arab League peacekeepers at the outset of the civil war.
Walid Jumblatt, head of the militant Druze forces in Lebanon and a firm ally of Syria's Assad, foresaw the worst for Beirut. "Beirut will be another Stalingrad and its future is very dark," the Druze leader told an Arab reporter last week. "Beirut will be demolished and leveled to the ground."
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Tutwiler had specifically mentioned as "particularly destructive" the Syrians' Soviet-made 240-millimeter mortar, which fires a massive round. Last week one fell on an underground shelter in East Beirut, collapsing it and killing 11 occupants. Several of the giant mortar rounds have fallen on the grounds of Aoun's presidential palace in the past three days.
No weapon is more frightening than the rockets used by both sides. Fired from a truck-mounted launcher of 40 tubes--a modern version of the old Soviet "Stalin Organ"--the rockets stream toward their targets like huge handfuls of explosive darts.
Describing a recent rocket exchange over West Beirut, a young secretary told a British reporter: "When they began shooting at each other with these rockets--40 on each side--it was like an earthquake. My back started vibrating. Shells were colliding in the air."