Deposed Christian militia commander Elie Hobeika, forced into exile last week by traditionalist Christian rivals, went to Damascus for talks today, as pro-Syrian militias pressed attacks against strongholds of Lebanese President Amin Gemayel.
Hobeika met twice with Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, amid reports that he may be asked to rebase in central Lebanon to wage a battle against Gemayel in the Christian heartland.
"We will certainly go back to Beirut," Hobeika told reporters after meeting with Khaddam.
Reflecting the widespread concern for Lebanon's future as Syria prepared to pressure Gemayel into submission on political and military fronts, the Lebanese pound tumbled to its lowest exchange rate against the U.S. dollar ever.
Syrian-backed leftist and Moslem militias intensified shelling into the Christian Upper Metn region northeast of Beirut, and Druze gunners unleashed a heavy barrage against Lebanese Army positions at Suq al Gharb, a strategic ridge controlling access to the presidential palace at Baabda, southeast of Beirut.
Hobeika, 29, who negotiated and signed a Syrian-brokered peace accord with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Shiite Moslem militia leader Nabih Berri last month, had to surrender his leadership of the Christian Lebanese Forces militia to Samir Geagea, his hard-line chief of staff.
Geagea's forces linked up with Phalangist Party fighters loyal to Gemayel last week and defeated Hobeika in battles that killed scores on both sides and shattered hopes for a smooth implementation of the accord. Leftist sources said the Syrians have asked Hobeika to direct an assault from the Syrian-controlled Christian town of Zahlah against the village of Biskinta, which is linked by a narrow mountain road to Bikfaya, Gemayel's home town. Armed members of Lebanon's National Syrian Social Party, entrenched in the hills nearby, said they were waiting for orders for an assault.
"So far there is no serious decision for any major operation," said one of the party's commanders, resting under the tree house of the late Antoun Saade, the party's founder. Only a few yards away, maroon-clad special forces of the Syrian Army were unloading shells from crates. The Syrian Army has moved troops, tanks and rocket launchers onto the peaks overlooking the Metn in recent days.
Less than a quarter mile below, the Lebanese Army's 8th Brigade dug into fortified positions around Bikfaya, returned fire as the Lebanese militiamen opened up with heavy machine guns. Lebanese Forces and Phalangist militiamen were fighting alongside the Army at Bikfaya.
A Syrian commander supervising the militiamen said that he has been posted around the approaches to Bikfaya since the civil war began in 1975. He said the Lebanese Army was sniping at anything that moved in the villages above, "even chickens."
In the neighboring village of Shrin, the Rev. Flavien Kfouri showed two devastated floors of his seminary in the St. Johanna Sabegh Monastery, which he said had been hit by Lebanese Army shells. There were no casualties because his students were in church, he said.
Geagea, in an interview with a French weekly, Nouveau Magazine, said the Christians did not want war, "but we know how to defend ourselves."
"Here we are, back to the language of cannons, back to the language of war," Jumblatt said today, pledging that his men would fight alongside leftist and Palestinian forces as well as anti-Gemayel Christians to defend their homeland.
Lebanon's Moslem leaders returning from Damascus this week said they would boycott Gemayel as president because he had led Christian rejection of key political clauses of the Syrian accord, which would have reduced traditional Christian powers in Lebanon and increased those of the Moslems and Druze.
Analysts say a key question now is whether Hobeika actually will join in a military campaign against the mainstream Christians he claimed to represent until last week.