For some besieged residents, it was a bridge to freedom and relative safety. For others it lived up its nickname: "The Bridge of Death."

The humpbacked bridge over the dry bed of the Beirut River leads from the shell-battered Christian neighborhoods of east Beirut to the Armenian quarter of Bouri Hammoud, where roads fan out to Christian strongholds on the Mediterranean coast and the hills of Mount Lebanon.

It is one of three such bridges, all controlled by Syrian army units of Lebanon's Arab peacekeeping force.

Yesterday it was symbol of the desperation reached by Lebanese trapped for more than a week under the most intense, sustained and damaging artillery barrage this war-ravaged country has been.

Scores of East Beirut Christians, risking Syrian sniper fire, streamed across the bridge on foot, carrying all the personal belongings they could hold.

Others drove through hails of bullets in cars loaded with relatives and household goods.

Some made it. Others were not so lucky.

By midmorning the bullet-riddled corpses of at least four such would-be refugees testified to the bridge's reputation.

Syrian soldiers commanding the bridge from sand-bagged machine gun nests atop adjacent buildings had earlier been allowing traffic to cross in both directions on the morning after their latest cease-fire with Christian militiamen. But then they suddenly began turning cars back with warning bursts of automatic weapons fire.

A dozen cars and trucks led by three youths on a motorcycle cautiously drove over the hump. Then the guns opened up and they came racing back.

Others residents, determined to get across no matter what the risk, advanced over the bridge on foot lugging suitcases and plastic bags, leading children by the hand and carrying babies. They drew no fire.

Encouraged, a lone white car tried to make it too. A fusillade of heavy gunfire spewed from the Syrian positions over the bridge. A stillness followed. Then a column of white smoke rose slowly from the other side.

"That's just cold-blooded murder," a witness said.

There's supposed to be a cease-fire, but you can't trust those bastards," said another.

By trial and error, life and death, the ground rules for that particular time of day seemed to be established: pedestrians only, no cars.

"Is your notebook big enough to write down all these horrors" asked a Christian woman named Claudine as she stood on a corner near the bridge.

She gestured toward the shell-scored buildings - some gutted by fire, others partially crumbled - lining a rubble-sterwn street on the East Beirut side of the bridge.

"Why are the Syrians doing this"? she asked. "Why isn't anybody stopping it? They sent paratroopers to Kolwezi, but this is much, much worse and nobody is doing anything."

Though pregnant, she took advantage of the cease-fire to drive across the bridge with her husband from the other side to inspect the damage to a relative's house. And now they couldn't get back, she said.

More refugees, fearful of never getting another chance, hurried over the bridge on foot.

Another driver hunched down behind the wheel of his loaded car and gunned it blindly at full speed over the hump and out of sight. The Syrian heavy machine guns opened up again.