Druze leader Walid Jumblatt rejected an appeal for unity and dialogue today by the new commander of the Lebanese Forces Christian militia, declaring that the force's leaders were a "bunch of criminals."
Jumblatt's harsh comments were the first by a Moslem or Druze leader since Elie Hobeika was named the new commander of the Christian militia on Thursday. His replacement of hard-liner Samir Geagea had been seen as an effort by the Christians to appease Syria, the chief supporter of the Moslem and Druze forces in Lebanon, and bring an end to the fighting that police say has killed 70 persons and wounded 200 in the past 11 days.
At a press conference at his mountain ancestral home in Mukhtara, Jumblatt also acknowledged that his forces had taken control of a famed 18th century Greek Catholic monastery in the Chouf Mountains and removed a collection of icons and gold coins from it. He said the treasures would be returned only when the Vatican adopts what he considers an "evenhanded" policy on the sectarian hostilities in Lebanon. Villagers said the Christian militia had been using the monastery as an arms depot.
The political deadlock between the Christians and the Syrian-allied Druze and Moslems increased fears that violent clashes would continue along the line separating east and west Beirut, and south of the capital. Jumblatt charged that the Lebanese Forces' move was not a peace offering but just a ploy to gain time.
Hobeika pledged full allegiance to Syria in a speech last week that called for peaceful negotiations between warring Lebanese groups, but Syria's silence on his appointment indicated that he was not a favored candidate.
The Christians reportedly had considered Geagea's bellicose tone inappropriate for the current phase, and thus replaced him, but the Moslems reportedly consider Hobeika no more acceptable. Jumblatt, referring today to Hobeika's role as intelligence chief of the Lebanese Forces at the time Christian militiamen massacred Palestinian refugees and Moslem civilians in two camps in Beirut in 1982, called him "this notorious guy who was responsible for Sabra and Shatila."
Jumblatt declared: "No one should imagine that there is any chance of us opening a line to these people. There is no question of this at all. Not for the present. Not ever."
He also warned that he considered this to be Lebanese President Amin Gemayel's last chance to govern.
Jumblatt is now the uncontested leader of the Druze community and the Chouf, where his Progressive Socialist Party militia finally consolidated its hold on a remaining string of Christian villages in the Kharroub region, pushing through to the sea late last month.
More than 10,000 Christian families have been driven out of their homes in the latest Druze offensive since April 28. The first massive exodus of Christians, from 70 villages, took place in 1983 during fierce Druze-Christian fighting in Lebanon's mountain heartland.
The bulk of the Christian community is now concentrated in east Beirut and an enclave north and northeast of it as well as in a strip just north of the Israeli border in southern Lebanon. The recent developments have created a virtual Druze canton in the Chouf and Kharroub hills south of Beirut and a Christian one to the north.
Jumblatt confirmed reports published yesterday that his forces had taken a collection of gold coins from St. Savior Monastery in Deir Mukhalles, in the Chouf. A reporter who visited the monastery this weekend found its church ransacked and pillaged and Druze fighters guarding it with Soviet-made tanks.
"As for the collection of icons, it is with me, and I will hand it over only to the Vatican provided that it follows a nationalist approach that is evenhanded toward events in Lebanon," Jumblatt said.
Villagers near the 274-year-old monastery said the hilltop structure had been used as an arms depot by Christian militias before the Druze took it over. Jumblatt told reporters today that his men had razed the nearby village of Alman but that its residents could return if they wanted to. Druze fighters reportedly bulldozed about 60 houses in the little Christian village.