Syria expected to deploy troops in Beirut suburbs today

Two weeks of uncertainty over Syria's plans to send troops into Beirut's embattled southern suburbs apparently ended yesterday. A senior Syrian official said in Damascus that agreement had been reached on a truce between the rival Shiite militias, Amal and Hizbullah, who have been battling for control of the suburbs since May 6. He said that new security arrangements would be implemented today.

The planned move brought a surge of speculation about the 15 Western hostages, whose fate had been one element of the complex negotiations that resulted in yesterday's agreement. Many of the hostages are believed held in the suburbs by Hizbullah or affiliated groups.

Nothing has been announced about their possible release as part of the agreement. In the past, the Iranian-backed kidnappers have driven a hard bargain for each captive freed.

``Ending the fighting will create new hope for the hostages, and Syria will spare no effort to secure their release, regardless of their nationality,'' said a senior Syrian official, announcing the imminent deployment.

Nabih Berri, leader of the Syrian-backed Amal militia, announced in Beirut that the arrangements would involve the deployment of Syrian troops along with Lebanese internal security forces (paramilitary police). A similar security formula has been in place in Muslim west Beirut since the arrival of Syrian forces here in February of last year.

Iran also appeared to give its blessing to the arrangements.

Yesterday's agreement emerged after a long period of high-pressure, behind-the-scenes negotiations, with Syria the focal point for many of the contacts.

The accord was announced shortly after a delegation of senior leaders from the Hizbullah militia had held talks in Syria with President Hafez Assad. Holding separate talks with Syrian officials in Damascus were Mr. Berri, and Lebanon's acting prime minister, Selim Hoss.

Dr. Hoss was reported to have made an official request for the deployment of the Syrian troops. Some 7,000 Syrian soldiers, backed by tanks and armored vehicles, have been poised at the entrances to the suburbs for nearly two weeks as the political wrangling dragged on.

Hizbullah argued initially that there was no need for the Syrians to go in to the suburbs. But later, in face of Syrian determination, they apparently accepted the entry in principle, but tried to limit the scope of the deployment.

Informed sources believed the Syrians compromised too, concerned, like Tehran, not to damage the strategic relationship between them. Under the agreement, Hizbullah - which wrested control of some 90 percent of the suburbs from Amal - is expected to be guaranteed freedom of political action. Militiamen would be withdrawn from the streets, but not disarmed.

Some Shiite sources expected the Syrian entry to be the thin end of a wedge, with the Syrians eventually moving to suppress the radical Hizbullah. ``But for the moment, it looks like a provisional solution rather than a settlement - both sides are buying time,'' said one source.

The future of the hostages - who include nine Americans - is reported to have been a major element in the secretive, high-level contacts over the suburbs.

A Beirut newspaper, Al-Safir, said yesterday the Syrian move into the suburbs had been held up because ``secret negotiations on the fate of the American hostages in particular, had not reached a decisive result.''

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