Druze militiamen today released unharmed the three Lebanese Cabinet ministers they had abducted yesterday and held in a palace in the mountains south of here.
Earlier today, Druze forces renewed their offensive against a Lebanese Army garrison in the mountains, killing two soldiers and wounding 26. The Druze also shelled Beirut's airport for the second day in a row but there were no casualties.
The release of the Cabinet ministers, who had gone to the mountains to mediate the dispute between Druze and the government, came after two hours of talks with an Israeli general at the palace where the men were being held.
Israeli troops, insisting that they would provide the security, prevented an escort of Lebanese police and Druze militiamen from accompanying the ministers as they left.
Upon leaving the palace, the ministers, despite indications to the contrary, insisted that they had not been abducted.
"There was no release. We were not kidnaped to be released," said Labor Minister Adnan Mroue, a Shiite Moslem. "Nothing happened . . . . We couldn't have left last night, so we stayed here."
Public Works Minister Pierre Khoury, a Maronite Catholic, said it was "suggested we come here." Finance Minister Adel Hamiyeh, a Druze, had no comment.
The freeing of the ministers involved complex negotiations in which the government agreed to consider the demands of the Druze, a breakaway Moslem sect, for greater Moslem participation in the affairs of state.
This afternoon the Cabinet, including the freed ministers, began an emergency session, and the results were anxiously awaited by Moslem leaders here.
The Druze have insisted on a redistribution of power in the Lebanese system, which accords the presidency and dominant roles to Maronite Catholics.
They have threatened to resist deployment of the Lebanese Army in their mountain villages until such an agreement is reached. Those villages are in territory controlled by Israeli occupation forces, although both Druze and Christian militias have been permitted by Israel to operate there and often have clashed in recent months.
The current troubles began Tuesday after a 50-vehicle convoy carried new armor, artillery and supplies to a Lebanese Army garrison in the mountains.
Apparently thinking that the government was secretly beginning to deploy in the mountains, the Druze militiamen attacked the post and later shelled the airport, U.S. Marine positions around it and areas near the Lebanese Defense Ministry and presidential palace.
Yesterday evening the three Cabinet ministers went into the Druze-controlled areas of the mountains to meet with a Druze religious leader, Sheik Mohammed Abu Shaqra, in an effort to halt the fighting. When they left the meeting, they were met by armed men and a crowd condemning their efforts. The armed men, according to witnesses, abducted the ministers, touching off a new political crisis for Lebanon.
Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, in an effort to get the ministers freed, turned for help to a Shiite Moslem leader, Nabih Berri, whose militiamen last month had fought with the Lebanese Army in Beirut.
Berri said he was able to make contact with Druze militia leader Walid Jumblatt through an intermediary, and Jumblatt agreed to have the ministers taken to his ancestral stone palace in the mountains.
Christian Phalangist militiamen played for Washington Post special correspondent Nora Boustany today what they said was a tape of a radio transmission they intercepted last night between aides of Jumblatt, reportedly with their leader in eastern Lebanon, and aides of Abu Shaqra, at the palace with the ministers.
On the scratchy tape, voices said to be Jumblatt's men told Abu Shaqra's aides to give the ministers dinner, demand that they resign and keep them in custody.
A voice said to be Abu Shaqra's protested that he agreed that they should resign and should be fed dinner but said he felt strongly that they should be released.
Berri said that in further indirect contacts with Jumblatt today he was able to secure the release of the ministers.
Meanwhile, according to Beirut radio, Lebanese Prime Minister Shafiq Wazzan accused the Israelis of providing cover to allow the Druze to attack the Lebanese Army positions, a charge that Israeli military officials denied, according to Washington Post correspondent Edward Walsh in Jerusalem.