Musa Awad, said to be a leading figure in Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization inside Lebanon, said yesterday that he and 23 other Fatah leaders in eastern Lebanon had joined in the growing rebellion against the embattled chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Musa Awad, also known as Abu Akram, told a press conference in Baalbek, center of the revolt against Arafat's leadership, that the new rebel recruits represent more than 10,000 Fatah members in Lebanon, according to Reuter news agency.
Flanked by three of the military leaders of the revolt, Awad said he and the 23 other mostly civilian leaders had met Sunday in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and agreed to throw in their lot with the rebels, Reuter reported.
Longtime observers of politics within Fatah, by far the largest element within the PLO, said it was unclear how much influence Awad wields within the organization, which has been in turmoil since the Palestinians pulled out of Beirut during the Israeli siege of the city last summer. There was little doubt, however, that the rebellion against Arafat's leadership was continuing.
The Associated Press quoted a PLO official loyal to Arafat as saying that while thousands is "an exaggerated figure," they (the 24 new rebels) "do enjoy wide support among guerrillas in the Bekaa Valley."
Arafat was reported yesterday to be continuing his tour of eastern and northern Lebanon in an effort to rally his forces, but his top deputy, Abu Iyad, nom de guerre for Salah Khalaf, sought in an interview distributed by the Palestinian news agency Wafa, to place the blame for some of the organization's problems with Syrian President Hafez Assad.
Khalaf, on the eve of a trip to Moscow to seek political and military support, said that Syria's failure to respond to PLO appeals for help during the Israeli siege of Beirut clinched Arafat's decision to evacuate. The evacuation of Beirut has been cited by mutinous Fatah commanders as one reason for their dissatisfaction with Arafat's leadership.
Reuter reported from Baalbek yesterday that Awad said the mutineers objected to Arafat's "equivocal" attitude to U.S. Middle East peace efforts, his now-ruptured peace dialogue with King Hussein of Jordan and what he called Arafat's desire to pull PLO fighters out of Lebanon.
Syria's Assad was in Libya yesterday, apparently to visit Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, an open supporter of the PLO rebels. Assad said on Libyan radio that he and Qaddafi discussed plans to derail the recent Israeli-Lebanese accord for the withdrawal of troops from Lebanon.
The combination of the uncertain subject of the Assad-Qaddafi talks on the one hand, and the forthcoming PLO-Soviet talks, on the other, left the future of the revolt against Arafat fluid. The Soviet Union is a major supporter and arms supplier of the Syrians.
Khalaf yesterday echoed Arafat's own condemnation of Qaddafi's involvement in the leadership crisis within the PLO, labeling attacks against PLO leaders by the Libyan state media as "tasteless" and exaggerated.
Khalaf elaborated on the sequence of events that led three weeks ago to the open rebellion by several key PLO commanders. He noted that the PLO leadership was "surprised" when rebel leader Abu Musa took his case to two battalions of the Yarmouk Brigade "a few days after Chairman Arafat met President Assad."
"The leadership nevertheless called for democratic dialogue and was then surprised by the attack on administrative offices in Damascus," the Syrian capital, Khalaf said.
About 150 rebels seized six Fatah offices and supply depots in a suburb of Damscus Saturday, wounding two guards, and have refused since then to obey the orders of two trusted PLO commanders Arafat appointed in eastern Lebanon.
In other developments, news agencies reported:
* In the latest of an escalating wave of attacks against Israeli forces in Lebanon, gunmen ambushed an Israeli patrol on a road south of Beirut, an Israeli military spokesman said. One guerrilla was wounded and captured, and there were no Israeli casualties, the spokesman said.
* Israeli radio reported that U.S. special envoy Philip Habib had made little progress in his attempts so far to mobilize Arab pressure on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon. Habib, who briefed Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin last night, returns to Washington today.
* Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak cautioned Syria against making an "uncalculated" move in its confrontation with Israel and hinted that Cairo would not support Damascus should war break out.