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Christians Repulse Syrian Offensive; 19 Killed in Beirut

August 13, 1989 GMT

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Christian fighters on Sunday fought off a Syrian assault on a major Christian stronghold near Beirut, and fighting in the capital killed at least 19 people and trapped scores more in burning buildings.

The attack on the Souk el-Gharb garrison in the mountains overlooking Beirut was the first time the Syrians and their allies have tried to push into the Christian heartland since March 8, when the latest round of violence began in the civil war.

″This is a sterling victory,″ the Christian army commander, Gen. Michel Aoun, said on Voice of Lebanon radio. ″The Syrian enemy and its surrogates have been dealt a crushing defeat.″

As Aoun claimed victory, Druse leader Walid Jumblatt canceled a news conference at which he had been expected to announce the capture of Souk el- Gharb.

Police confirmed the Christians repulsed the Syrian-led attack.

About 2,100 Syrian troops, Druse militiamen and radical Palestinian guerrillas, backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers, attacked the one- time resort, which controls a network of roads twisting through the mountains of central Lebanon.

A Christian army communique claimed 150 Syrians were killed in five hours of fighting. But a senior army source said 10 Syrians, 20 Druse and 20 Palestinians were confirmed killed.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, refused to give army casualties but said there were ″plenty.″

He said another 12 Syrians were killed in fighting along Beirut’s Green Line, which divides the city into Christian and Moslem sectors. There was no word from the Syrians, who rarely announce their losses.

The fall of Souk el-Gharb would have been a major setback for the Christians. Its loss would leave the Christian suburbs of Baabda and Yarze, where the bulk of Christian forces and armor are deployed, vulnerable to attack.

Aoun lives in a bunker under the shell-blasted presidential palace in Baabda. His senior aides are based in the Defense Ministry compound in Yarze.

Aoun warned that with the attack on Souk el-Gharb, the Syrians were expected to escalate their ″barbaric bombardment″ of the 310-square-mile Christian enclave north of Beirut.

A police spokesman, who cannot be named under standing regulations, said at least 19 people were killed and 80 wounded in Beirut, a virtual ghost town since the bulk of its 1.5 million residents began fleeing the fighting.

″Where are our Arab brethren?″ screamed an announcer over the Christian Voice of Lebanon radio.

″Beirut is being wiped off the face of earth as if by an earthquake. Our wounded are bleeding to death in the streets and in basements,″ she said, her voice choking with emotion.

″It’s World War III here,″ cab drvier Bashir Harakeh said in a telephone call from a shelter in Moslem Bourj el-Barajneh.

The casualty count Sunday did not include dozens of civilians buried in shell-wrecked apartment blocks or trapped in basements of burning buildings.

Even if firefighters could get past the rubble to reach the buildings, they could not put out the flames because the city’s water pumping system was destroyed three weeks ago.

Many people lay bleeding in the streets, because rescue teams could not reach them.

Since the duels began March 8, 641 people have been killed and 1,713 wounded. That does not include casualties from the Souk el-Gharb battle or the Syrian deaths reported along the Green Line.

The duels began after Aoun blockaded illegal militia-run ports, which reportedly were costing the government $1 million a year in lost customs dues.

The Syrians retaliated by shelling the Christian enclave.

Police said about 400 Syrian guns and multi-barrelled rocket launchers began blasting the Christian heartland at dusk Saturday in one of the most intense bombardments since March.

The barrage continued through Sunday.

The Syrians used Soviet-designed BM-21 rocket launchers, which can fire 40 projectiles a minute, as well as 180mm and 240mm mortars.

Aoun’s gunners hit back with an estimated 25,000 rounds of 130mm mortar and 155mm howitzer fire against Syrian artillery positions along west Beirut’s beaches, police said.

They also blasted Syrian supply routes through the Bekaa Valley in east Lebanon.

Three shells hit the Turkish Embassy in Baabda, causing damage but no casualties. French Ambassador Rene Ala’s residence in Yarze was damaged, police said.

The Hotel Dieu Hospital in east Beirut and west Beirut’s Barbir Hospital were hit, but patients and staff had taken shelter in underground bunkers.

The International Committee of the Red Cross appealed for a cease-fire, claiming the number of casualties was ″increasing hour by hour.″

The United States, France and the Arab League have appealed for a cease- fire. France dispatched envoys to Arab capitals, including Damascus, Syria, seeking diplomatic action.

The Syrians have 40,000 troops in Lebanon under a 1976 Arab League peacekeeping mandate. Aoun maintains they betrayed that mandate when they sided the Moslems in the war.

Syria refuses to negotiate with Aoun, who has vowed to drive the Syrians out of Lebanon.