Five Christian militiamen were killed here yesterday in fighting with Druze villagers, raising fears of a Christian retaliation that would set off another spiral of sectarian violence in these rugged Chouf Mountains southeast of the capital.
The Israeli Army moved into this tense Druze village immediately after the incident last night to calm rising emotions and restrain the Christian Lebanese Forces militia, which could be seen bringing reinforcements into the area today in preparation for a showdown.
But it was unclear whether the Israelis could control the deteriorating situation, which some observers feared could lead to widespread fighting. The Israelis had moved additional tanks, armored personnel carriers and troops into a dozen Chouf villages earlier this week and for three days imposed a 22-hour curfew on the provincial capital of Alayh before the latest incident.
Fighting between the Christians and the Druze, members of a religious sect whose creed is basically Moslem, has swept this area periodically since a massacre in 1860. The current wave of violence has escalated since mid-October.
The mood of pessimism settling over Beirut was reflected in comments made by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday. He accused the Lebanese Forces leadership of "bad intentions" and said further talks were "useless."
"They the Lebanese Forces want to massacre the Druze of Mount Lebanon. It's not just Druze and Maronites, it's a national problem," he said, referring to the Maronite Christian sect that dominates the 20,000-member Lebanese Forces militia. "I don't see any solution at all, which means the start of a new civil war," he added.
Fadi Hayek, the chief Lebanese Forces spokesman, vehemently denied Jumblatt's charges of a planned massacre of Druze and said its troops had only gone into the Chouf region "to permit Christians who want to go back there to do so."
"We consider our presence is necessary in the area and a factor of stability and security," he said in another interview. "If others take it as a pretext to start fighting, that is their problem."
Hayek said the National Lebanese Army was "not sufficiently strong yet to assure its role of maintaining security" in the Chouf Mountains and that until it was, the Lebanese Forces intended to stay there to protect the Christians.
Both Jumblatt and government spokesmen have said they will ask U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib, who just returned here to negotiate the withdrawal of all foreign troops, to intervene in the Chouf crisis.
Prime Minister Shafiq Wazzan on Thursday accused the Israelis of instigating the sectarian strife and called for the speedy withdrawal of their troops from the Chouf.
"The Lebanese Army is poised to enter the two regions Alayh and the Chouf and quickly bring the clashes to an end," he said over Beirut state radio. "But our Army will not enter the troubled areas as long as the enemy remains there. Our army cannot coexist with occupation."
An Israeli spokesman in Baabda, where the Army maintains a press office, denied that the Israelis were behind the flare-up of violence or aiding either side.
"We are in a touchy business," he said.
He said the Israeli Army was doing its best to restrain the Lebanese Forces and denied it was providing the Druze with arms, as local reports have been asserting.
"We are not supplying the Druze, but we have not been active in disarming them, either," he asserted.
He said the Israelis would "love to go away" from the Chouf and were ready to hand over to the Lebanese Army the job of maintaining law and order here. But he, too, raised doubts it was strong enough to do this alone and questioned whether the Israeli government was ready to give up control of Alayh because of its location on the strategic Beirut-Damascus highway.
Thus, all indications were that the issue of an Israeli departure from the Chouf has become intricately involved in the larger one of the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lebanon.
Since mid-October, the Chouf Mountains have been the scene of worsening strife between Christian militiamen of the Lebanese Forces, the movement that President Amin Gemayel's family founded and leads, and Druze supporters of the Progressive Socialist Party led by Jumblatt.
More than 50 persons already have died in clashes, scores of others have been wounded and perhaps an additional 60 Druze and Christians kidnaped. Their fate is not known.
The struggle between the Lebanese Forces and Druze party began in July when Christian militiamen first began moving into the Chouf Mountains with the approval, and sometimes active assistance, of the Israeli Army, which occupied this region during the first days of its early June invasion of Lebanon.
The Chouf, with an estimated population of 300,000, is predominantly Druze, but there are many mixed villages and some exclusively Christian ones as well.
The two communities, whose sectarian strife has been pivotal to political developments in Lebanon for the past 120 years, have lived side by side in the Chouf for centuries. But the specter of massacres has haunted both ever since 1860 when the Druze slaughtered an estimated 11,000 Christians in a general bloodletting.
Druze villagers rampaged again in 1977 after the assassination of their leader Kamal Jumblatt, killing at least 300 Christians even though most Druze now believe the Syrians were responsible.
Last night's incident here was a microcosm of the gathering sectarian storm threatening the peace of the Chouf and possibly that of the capital region as well. It also showed how Israeli forces may serve temporarily to halt the escalation of fighting but cannot stop the general deterioration.
According to Lebanese Forces, Israeli and Druze sources here, a jeep carrying six armed Christian militiamen entered the village after dark. The Druze villagers thought the intruders were staging a raid, since militiamen from Aytat had earlier in the week attacked the Lebanese Forces barracks at Suq al Gharb, a Christian village just above here.
The villagers said their attack on the barracks was in retaliation for 169 mortar shells fired into Aytat Thursday.
But both an Israeli major and a Lebanese Forces spokesman said the Christian militiamen were simply returning from Beirut with food supplies to the Suq Gharb barracks and had lost their way when they entered Aytat.
Druze villagers said the militiamen had beaten up a 14-year-old boy and opened fire on them. Then the militiamen entered the home of Mustapha abu Saab, 80, and wounded four armed villagers before five militiamen were killed and another wounded and captured.
"They said surrender and give us your arms," said one villager who would give only his last name, Timane. "They tried to come in a guerrilla operation."
The Israeli major, who acted as peacemaker Saturday, suspected that two of the five Christian militiamen had been executed by the villagers after their surrender. He was convinced they had lost their way and were not seeking trouble.
The major, who identified himself only as Elie, had moved a Merkava tank, two armored personnel carriers and a platoon of troops between the two villages to keep the peace. He said he was doing his best to prevent a Christian retaliation and that talks were going on at a high level to assure this.