French Warships Raise Lebanon Stakes : Muslims Threaten to Open Fire if Carrier Comes Within Range

Times Staff Writer

French warships approached Lebanon on Wednesday in the face of a growing storm of Muslim threats.

The National Front, an alliance of anti-Christian militias, declared that it would "deal with any French presence off our shore as a military target." And Nabih Berri, whose Shiite Muslim militia Amal is armed with artillery, declared, "We will open fire. . . ."

In Paris, President Francois Mitterrand, who dispatched the ships on what his government has called a humanitarian mission, took immediate umbrage with these remarks.

"No country or group has the right to dictate what France should do as far as Lebanon is concerned," Mitterrand was quoted as telling his Cabinet.

Underground Bunker

Rene Ala, the French ambassador to Lebanon, met for 90 minutes with Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun, the beleaguered Christian leader, and told reporters on emerging from Aoun's underground bunker that the eight French ships, including the aircraft carrier Foch, would arrive late Wednesday night or early this morning and take up stations several miles off the coast.

"I can't imagine that the Foch will be targeted," the ambassador said. "Its mission is not provocative. It has no military significance. Military intervention is not even remotely possible. We do not believe in a military solution for Lebanon."

Whatever the French expect, sending in the warships sounded an alarm in Muslim quarters and beyond.

Sheik Zayed ibn Sultan al Nuhayan, president of the United Arab Emirates, called for an Arab summit conference and the immediate deployment of a peacekeeping force in Lebanon. The Arabs, Sheik Zayed said in a magazine interview circulated Wednesday by the Emirates news agency, "should intervene before the foreigners to stop the bloodshed."

A previous Arab League attempt to resolve the five-month-long outbreak of fighting collapsed three weeks ago.

The foreign ministers of the European Community, meeting in Paris, said the situation in Lebanon was "fraught with danger" and called for lifting port blockades on both the Christian and Muslim sides, along with an immediate cease-fire.

In Beirut, the grinding artillery war between the Syrian-led Muslim forces and Aoun's Christian forces continued Tuesday night and early Wednesday at the diminished level of the past week. An Aug. 13 ground attack on Christian positions above the capital was followed two days later by a U.N. Security Council cease-fire appeal. Since then, the fighting has been relatively low-level as both sides apparently consider the implications of international pressure and the prospects of escalated combat.

Hundreds of Marines

A Syrian troop buildup has been reported since the Muslim infantry attack, raising concern that the 40,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon and their Muslim militia allies might try to seize Christian-held territory.

In the lull of the shelling, the advance of the French warships caught the attention of most people in Beirut. Wednesday's issue of the pro-Syrian newspaper Ash Sharq contained the headline "France Reinforces Its Fleet; Lebanon and the Region Face the Threat of a Large Explosion."

France, which ruled Lebanon from 1919 to 1943 under a League of Nations mandate, said the warships, which reportedly carry hundreds of marines, were being sent to be prepared in an emergency to evacuate 7,000 French citizens there, most of them Lebanese with dual nationality. The ships also carried food and medical supplies, Paris officials said.

But Lebanese Muslim officials accused the French of planning to run arms into Aoun's harbors at Juniyah and Jubayl, or at least trying to force the Syrians to raise their blockade of the ports.

Berri, the Amal leader, said he had ordered his 6,000 militiamen, who so far have stayed out of the fighting between Christians and Syrians, "to carry arms and join other Muslim and nationalist forces in confronting the new crusaders."

Playing on Fears

Aoun did not hesitate to play on Muslim fears. He was quoted in Wednesday's issue of the Paris daily France-Soir as saying, "Of course I wish for French military intervention." And he added that he expects the warships "to be put at my disposal to assure freedom of movement in territorial waters," suggesting that the warships would raise the Syrian blockade.

Aoun also said in the France-Soir interview that he had received military supplies from Paris to supplement the arms the Christians get from Iraq, their major supplier. France has supplied Aoun with spare parts but no new weapons, the British news agency Reuters quoted an unidentified Foreign Ministry official as saying in Paris.

No French troops have been stationed in Lebanon since 1984, when an international peacekeeping force was withdrawn. The French force, joined by U.S. and other foreign peacekeeping units, went into Beirut following the departure of Israeli troops who invaded in 1982. Both the French and American contingents suffered heavy casualties in Muslim truck-bomb attacks.

RELATED STORIES--France walks tightrope. Page 8

U.S. called timid. Page 9

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World