A tanker carrying fuel for Lebanon's besieged Christians was struck by Syrian shellfire today and set on fire as it tried to run a Syrian blockade under the cover of darkness, police reported. Seven crewmen were killed and two were missing and feared dead.
The incident touched off a fierce five-hour artillery battle between the Syrians and the Christian forces of Gen. Michel Aoun in and around divided Beirut. Police said three people were killed and 16 wounded in the barrage, which dwindled to intermittent mortar and machine-gun exchanges by 8:30 a.m.
That raised the casualty toll since fighting erupted March 8 to at least 795 people killed and 2,263 wounded.
Police said only two Lebanese among 11 crewmen aboard the tanker were rescued. One of the survivors, Hanna Saddiq, said the tanker was attacked with missiles by "a Syrian gunboat" enforcing the 5-month-old blockade off the Christian-held coast during the night.
But a police spokesman, who cannot be identified under standing regulations, said the ship was shelled by radar-controlled Syrian howitzers deployed along the seafront in Muslim West Beirut.
Syrian artillery batteries along West Beirut's seafront also fired on Aoun's positions and the shelling quickly spread to residential districts, police reported.
Hit Off Maameltein
Police said the ship, identified only as the Sunshield, was hit at least once by radar-guided artillery about 7 miles off Maameltein, an area 11 miles north of this war-torn capital.
"As the captain shouted from the deck, demanding that the engine be switched off, I found myself trapped inside a hell of fire," Paul Issa, one of the two survivors, told the Christian Voice of Free Lebanon in a bedside interview at the hospital.
Issa said he sustained severe burns as he threw himself into the sea that was a mass of burning fuel.
"I had to swim for a while under the surface and I remained in the water for more than 30 minutes before an army gunboat picked me up," he said with a choking, somber voice.
The police spokesman said he had no information on the ship's tonnage, registry or owners.
The spokesman said the Sunshield was carrying 550,000 gallons of gasoline purchased by the Christian government headed by Aoun, which is vying for power with a rival Syrian-backed Muslim Cabinet.