The Lebanese Army today began tearing down the squatter shops and homes of Moslem refugees living near Beirut's airport and only about 200 yards away from the U.S. Marines stationed here as part of the multinational peace-keeping force.
Bulldozers, some with two Lebanese soldiers riding shotgun guard, rammed through stores and other unfinished buildings in the mostly Shiite Moslem quarter of Haret Gharwani. Residents said they had been given until Saturday morning to clear out of their homes.
Lebanese Army troops sweeping through the suburb shot and wounded two civilians, United Press International reported. The shooting broke out when a group of Shiite squatters confronted the bulldozers.
About 15,000 refugees live in the area and it was not clear whether the Army would demolish all of their homes. By late today, several dozen structures, most of them shops but some of them inhabited dwellings, had been razed.
The government action is part of a larger plan to clear out hundreds of thousands of squatters who fled to West Beirut during and after the 1975-76 civil war and built the unlicensed, makeshift corrugated metal and stone structures. It seemed certain to place the Western peace-keeping force in an embarrassing position once again.
The Shiite village lies just east of the airport on the main road from the capital. It is within view of the Marines' headquarters and about a half-mile from that of the Italians who, together with the French, make up the 3,950-man force.
The units were sent here, after the massacre in two West Beirut Palestinian camps of hundreds of civilians, to restore a sense of security to the shaken refugee population. But since its arrival, the Lebanese Army has carried out a house-by-house search of the largely Moslem western sector and arrested hundreds of allegedly illegal aliens. The Lebanese troops also have harassed the Palestinian civilians that the multinational force is supposed to be protecting.
Now the government appears intent upon ousting tens of thousands of squatters without providing them with new homes or other assistance just as the winter rains are beginning.
A spokesman for Amal (Hope), the Shiite militia organization, charged that the government planned to clear out eventually as many as 300,000 squatters in and around Moslem West Beirut. Most, he said, were Shiites who had fled from the fighting in East Beirut or in the south between the Israelis and Palestinians during the past seven years.
One Western diplomat said he had been told that only about 35 unoccupied and illegal buildings obstructing the airport's radar system were to be razed today and that any residents affected by the action would be taken care of by the government.
But a source at another Western embassy said he had been told by the government that 236 buildings would be razed in the slum-clearing project at the airport.
The prospect appeared to be that the rest of the neighborhood would be bulldozed starting Saturday. Residents said they were being thrown into the streets and told to go back where they came from.
Early last month, the government announced its intention to clear the capital area of all squatters and illegal shops and markets. It began doing so several weeks later, knocking down shops and stalls along the seaside corniche as well as some squatter homes around Prime Minister Shafiq Wazzan's residence.
During two visits to the Shiite village today, I watched as several bulldozers plowed into largely empty workshops and stalls but also some homes with people living in them.
The owner of one of them, Khoudar Farhat, 42, said he had 14 people living in the one-story building that the bulldozer knocked over seconds after he and others in his family pulled out their belongings.
Farhat said he had come to the village in 1977 after Christian militiamen commanded by Lebanon's slain president-elect Bashir Gemayel had burned down his home north of East Beirut.
Farhat said he knew he had squatted on government land but said he had no other place to go. "The fault is the government's," he said. "It doesn't take care of us."
Col. Rafik Hasan of the Lebanese gendarmerie, who seemed to be in charge of the operation, said it was the squatters' fault and they had known "they shouldn't come here in the first place."
"They must all go back to their villages," he said.
A fruit and vegetable vendor, Mohammed Shamis, 62, said he had been given six hours to clear out his shop before the Army destroyed it. He said he was also told he had to be out of his home by 8 a.m. Saturday.
Shamis related he had 13 people, including eight children, in his adjacent house and said that Christian militiamen twice before had destroyed his abode.
A spokesman for Amal said its leader, Nabih Berri, was meeting with President Amin Gemayel tonight to discuss the matter and obtain help in resettling the squatters elsewhere than in territory controlled by Christian militiamen.
"Amal supports the new government," he said. "But if this is what we get, I don't know."
He said two Amal representatives who went to the village this morning to talk with the Army had been beaten with rifle butts and told to go away.
Meanwhile, Wazzan held his first Cabinet meeting today. The 10 members of the new Cabinet are technocrats who reportedly will remain in office for only a transitional period of perhaps six months.
The 10 were drawn from outside the parliament and include four lawyers, three engineers, a doctor, a university professor and a businessman.
The professor is Elie Salem, 52, a Greek Catholic who is dean of the arts and sciences faculty at the American University here.