Bombarded Aoun Flees To Embassy, Asks Cease-Fire; Govt Demands Surrender
BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Under heavy bombardment, rebel Gen. Michel Aoun fled his fortified headquarters Saturday and went to the French Embassy, asking for a cease-fire. The government demanded his surrender.
The attack on his compound in the presidential palace came hours after an assassination attempt against Aoun, who opposes the Syrian-backed government of President Elias Hrawi.
″We have just learned that Prime Minister Gen. Michel Aoun headed for the French Embassy in Hazmiyeh and requested a cease-fire,″ Aoun’s radio said. It did not elaborate.
The residential district of Hazmiyeh in Christian east Beirut is less than a mile from the presidential palace, which had been fortified as a bunker.
Hrawi’s army command said the Lebanese president received a telephone call from French Ambassador Rene Ala relaying Aoun’s cease-fire request.
″President Hrawi has asked Gen. Aoun to declare through his media his readiness to hand over the presidential palace and the Defense Ministry in Yarze to Gen. Emile Lahoud and to start the handover at once,″ the command said.
Lahoud commands Hrawi’s 20,000-man mainly Moslem army, which has been ringing Aoun’s enclave in the Christian heartland along with thousands of Syrian troops and dozens of tank columns.
The bombardment began at daybreak, a witness said.
″The planes made three rocketing sorties at first light, leaving the palace shrouded in a cloud of smoke,″ said Mohieddin Habbal, a driver for The Associated Press.
″I could not tell whether they were Syrian or Lebanese,″ said Habbal, who watched the air action from rooftop of his house in south Beirut.
Syrian artillery then opened up against the palace in suburban Baabda and the command of Aoun’s estimated 15,000 troops in neighboring Yarze from all directions, Habbal added.
Police, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the air attack and artillery bombardment, saying the action was setting the stage for a ground thrust to crush Aoun’s rebellion.
Syria has an estimated 40,000 troops in Lebanon.
On Friday, a Shiite Moslem assailant fired at Aoun as he addressed thousands of supporters, but the bullet missed the general and wounded one of his aides, Aoun’s radio station said.
The assassination attempt came shortly after the Syrian army moved thousands of troops toward the enclave for an expected attack on the headquarters of Aoun, who has resisted orders by Lebanon’s government to step down.
Aoun’s radio station said the general’s supporters saw the gunman aiming a pistol at him and pushed him before it went off. The gunman ″staggered as the gun went off, wounding an aide standing close to the general,″ the broadcast said.
It identified the assailant as an 18-year-old Shiite Moslem from the southern town of Habboush. The radio said he also holds an Australian passport.
The radio said the assailant was questioned by military officials and confessed that he was ordered to kill Aoun. It did not say who gave those orders. The report also did not identify the aide who was hit or describe the extent of his injuries.
The broadcast said the attack came as Aoun talked to his supporters, who have formed a human shield around the presidential palace in the encircled Christian enclave in an attempt to forestall the expected Syrian attack.
″I am ready to die on the battlefield of honor rather than surrender. Be sure I shall die fighting,″ Aoun told the cheering crowds around the hilltop palace east of Beirut in Baabda, Lebanon’s Christian heartland.
In an interview with CNN after the attack, Aoun said he is ″always expecting″ assassination attempts.
He also said the gathering Syrian and Lebanese government forces will have to begin the impending military battle ″because I don’t intend to open fire.″
The Syrians had moved thousands of troops and dozens of tank columns to the major entrances of Aoun’s territory in what a Lebanese government official said was ″another step in the march to end Aoun’s mutiny.″
Syria’s troops in Lebanon support President Hrawi, who is trying to end 15 years of civil war. An official in Hrawi’s administration said Syrian and Lebanese government troops would attack if a French mediation attempt failed, but he did not set a deadline.
Aoun’s estimated soldiers, mainly Christians, are heavily outnumbered and outgunned by the Syrians and by the mainly Moslem troops loyal to Hrawi.
Aoun, a former army commander, has refused to recognize Hrawi, who he considers a Syrian puppet.
Aoun has considered himself the legitimate authority in Lebanon since September 1988, when he was appointed a caretaker prime minister by outgoing President Amin Gemayel.
Hrawi was elected president Nov. 24 to implement an Arab League-brokered peace plan endorsed by Parliament. He then sacked Aoun as army chief and interim prime minister.
Aoun has rejected the peace accord because it does not contain guarantees for a complete Syrian military withdrawal. The Syrians have had troops in Lebanon since 1976 under an Arab League peacekeeping mandate.
The peace accord provides for sharing political power equally between Moslems and Christians, ending the traditional dominance of the Maronite Catholics, the main Christian sect. Aoun and Hrawi are both Maronites.