Elie Hobeika, the defeated commander of the Lebanese Forces, the main Christian militia, fled the country today with his family and close aides aboard a Lebanese Army helicopter, as pro-Syrian mountain gunners eased a barrage of shelling against villages in the Christian heartland.
The removal of Hobeika, Syria's leading ally in the Christian camp until yesterday, scuttled a Syrian-sponsored accord among Lebanon's three main factions to end the country's 11-year-old civil war. As a result, Moslem leaders anticipated renewed sectarian strife.
An intra-Christian conflict over the peace agreement led to Hobeika's ouster by rival Phalangist militiamen and followers of his own chief of staff, Samir Geagea, yesterday. After handing in his resignation, Hobeika, 29, was escorted out of his bunker by Lebanese Army troops to the Defense Ministry. He was flown into exile this morning via Cyprus to Paris.
The Lebanese Army moved columns of U.S.-made tanks, armored personnel carriers and halftracks to protect the approaches to the mountain resort town of Bikfaya after nightlong artillery duels.
"We are going to the front," said a lieutenant of the mainly Christian 8th Brigade. "Many of us are already up there; at least three battalions," he added, as the armored vehicles rumbled toward the village of Douar, where seven Lebanese soldiers have been killed in the latest fighting.
Conflicting orders to Syria's local allies in the hills overlooking the Metn and Kesrouan regions, the Christian heartland, added to confusion about Syria's intentions. Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, angered by the blow dealt to his carefully plotted peace package, gave pro-Syrian leftist groups the green light yesterday to put pressure on the Christian enclave. Today the instructions were reversed, political sources said.
Shiite Moslem leader Nabih Berri traveled to Damascus this afternoon for consultations with Syrian leaders. Khaddam conferred with Berri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt as well as with members of the National Unity Front, a coalition of pro-Syrian Lebanese politicians and groups.
"We have lost 10 years," commented a member of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party, summing up the last two days.
Despite a daylong alliance between Phalangist fighters still loyal to Lebanese President Amin Gemayel and Geagea supporters, the struggle for power in Christian ranks remained unsettled. Militiamen were stationed around Geagea's Voice of Lebanon radio station to protect the staff and prevent a takeover by the Phalangists. Geagea staged a revolt against the Phalangist Party and Lebanese Forces leadership last March.
Geagea's advisers insisted that no one wants to forgo the Damascus accord completely but just to rework some sections that are considered too compromising to Lebanon's Christian community.
"Not too many people are sorry to see Hobeika leave, because of his mafia-style approach," said a Christian engineer. "But maybe he had a sense of realism in dealing with the Syrians, which could have brought an early end to the civil war."
During a Syrian-Lebanese summit meeting Monday, Gemayel stressed to leaders in Damascus that the peace accord is unacceptable in its present form and needs revisions. The Damascus agreement limits the powers of the president, a Christian Maronite, allows for greater power-sharing by the Moslem majority, and gives Syria a free hand in Lebanese military and political affairs.
Former president Camille Chamoun, who visited Gemayel today, told reporters that the outcome of Monday's summit was "negative to a great extent." Chamoun, 86, is among a class of traditional leaders who have rejected Syrian tutelage over Lebanon and curbs on the privileges of the president.
The few residents of Christian east Beirut who ventured out of their homes this morning were grim-faced.
"What can we be happy about?" asked a young woman at Phalangist headquarters arranging for funerals of fighters killed the day before. "Nobody won anything. People are truly disgusted this time."