Far from the glare of Tehran's embassy takeover, the feuding Christmas of Lebanon are playing out a grim little hostage drama of their own in the bloody tradition of their mountain villages.
The abductions, which have been going on since October, ostensibly grew from a dispute over Syrian influence and military presence here.
They also reflect the deep hatred dividing two of Lebanon's most powerful Christian clans locked in a deadly vendetta reminiscent of the Hatfields and McCoys.
Whatever the motives, the struggle underlines the extent to which the people of Lebanon have been left at the mercy of armed groups -- Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian -- competing for power in a country whose own government has been reduced to near impotence by civil war.
At one time last fall, about 500 hostages, all Christian, were held by both sides. Most were released last month following on appeal from Pope John Paul II. But the rival private armies controlled by each family say about 30 Lebanese remain captive -- with each side refusing to release its prisoners for fear of losing a means of pressure on the other.
Sheik Pierre Gemayel, 74, leader of the Phalangist Party that holds about 20 "prisoners of war," called last week for a "noble initiative' leading to a mutual hostage turnover in the spirit of Christmas.
His rival, former, president Suleiman Franjieh, ignored the appeal. Observers made cynical by the bloodshed here over the last five years wondered whether all the hostages on either side are still alive in any case.
Franjieh, 69, chieftain of Zagharta in the northern Lebanese mountains above Tripoli, has vowed revenge for the slaying in June last year of his son Tony, his daughter-in-law Vera and his granddaughter Jihan along with about 30 of the family's followers.
They were killed in the village of Ehden near Zagharta by a Phalangist raiding party armed with submachine guns, machine guns, recoilless rifles and grenade launchers. Christian sources say the local Phalongist leader, Samir Gaga, organized the slaughter because he was upset at Franjieh's attempts to displace the Phalangists in Christian villages near Zagharta.
By then, both sides had forgotten that Franjieh was an ally of the Gemayels, in the civil war against Palestinians and Moslem Lebanese in 1975 and 1976. A struggle for influence in the Christian-controlled mountains had replaced Lebanese sovereignty over the Palestinians as the cause for war.
Also in the background, was Franjieh's longstanding friendship with President Hafez Assad of Syria and his support of the 30,000-man Syrian occupation army sent into Lebanon in November 1976 to end the civil war.
Gemayel's Phalangists and their main allies, the National Liberals of former president Camille Chamoun, have resisted Syrian attempts to reduce the power of Christian militias and the de facto Phalangist government that runs Christian areas. They regard Franjieh as a Syrian agent who has sold out Lebanon and can no longer survive without Syrian protection. w
"No matter how this turns out, even if Franjieh joins us now, the moment the Syrians pull out, he will have to go live in Syria," said Naoum Farah, spokesman of the Lebanese Forces uniting National Liberal and Phalangist irregulars.
Since the mass slaying in Ehden, Gemayel and his two sons, Amin and Bashir, all have been the target of separate assassination attempts reportedly mounted by Franjieh supporters seeking revenge. A little over a month ago, a band of Zagharta gunmen disguised in the robes of Maronite Christian monks attacked a Phalangist checkpoint on the road between Beirut and Tripoli and killed five militiamen.
Phalangist officials say Franjieh's militia, the Giants Brigade, has killed more than a hundred friends and relatives of Phalangist Party members in Northern Lebanon since the Ehden killings. In addition, they charge, his gunmen have driven about 20,000 persons from their homes in Christian villages near Zagharta but loyal to the Gemayel family.
A high official of the Phalangist Party acknowledged that the Gemayels are holding on to their "prisoners of war" as protection against further assassination attempts by Franjieh's gunmen.
"It's a sort of life insurance policy for them," he said, smiling over an elegant lunch.
Franjieh says he has released all his hostages but Phalangist officials say he or his Syrian allies are still holding more than a dozen and that the Zaghartan warrior has made it known that he will let them go only when his own followers are allowed to return home.
In the meantime, Franjieh's gunmen also have mounted a blockade to keep gasoline and fuel oil from the government's Tripoli refinery out of Beirut's Phalangist-controlled Christian neighborhoods. The idea is to squeeze the Germayels into releasing their "prisoners or war." In fact, however, reliable sources say Phalangists have made gasoline and oil purchases in Syria and even Libya, keeping their supplies only slightly below normal.
Although prices have risen from about $1 a gallon to $1.25 a gallon for gasoline and from $200 a ton to $220 for heating oil, supplies seen plentiful and the streets of Christian East Beirut are jammed with late-model automobiles.
Ironically, the blockade has hit harder in Beirut's predominantly Moslem western sector, which relies primarily on a refinery near Sidon supplied by a pipeline from Saudi Arabia owned by Tapline, a subsidiary of the U.S.-owned Aramco.Lone lines form in front of service stations in moslem quarters and many families are having trouble finding heating oil at any price.
"You have to fight for it," said a Palestinian resident of western Beirut.