Lebanese Supporters Shield Defiant General

CHRISTIAN supporters of defiant Gen. Michel Aoun have stepped up their vigil around the Lebanese presidential palace in the hills east of Beirut over the festive season, hoping their presence will continue to ward off a threatened Syrian attack. Instead of spending Christmas in their homes and churches, scores of thousands chose to flock to the palace at Baabda to express support for the general and celebrate the holy days in the running carnival that has been going on outside the palace gates for the past month.

Some of those who took part said that as many as 250,000 people attended the midnight mass held at Baabda on Christmas Eve. While that is almost certainly an exaggeration, there is no doubt that the general's defiant stand is drawing crowds bigger than any seen in Lebanon before. Another huge turnout is expected at midnight on New Year's Eve.

``It's beautiful, what's happening, it's a real revolution,'' said one of General Aoun's most ardent supporters, George Micaelian, who has camped outside the palace day and night since the Syrian threat first loomed large four weeks ago.

``If we hadn't come here that first Monday when the Syrians were going to attack, it would all be over,'' he added. ``We, the people, are defending Baabda and defending General Aoun. It is not a question of armies and weapons any more, it's a question of people and the will of the people.''

``We are like shields, protecting the presidential palace,'' said Maya Kenaan, a student. ``It's like a symbol for protecting the whole country. If the bombs start falling, of course we'll stay. That's the main reason we came here.''

Inside the palace, with the chanting of his supporters - many of them organized groups of schoolchildren - ringing in his ears, Aoun himself shrugs off his critics' charge that he is hiding behind a wall of human sandbags.

``It's the first time in history that the people are defending their leader,'' he said. ``We have seen leaders or rulers oppressing their people, or the people getting rid of their dictators, like in Romania. But never before have we seen people encircling their leader to preserve him, to protect him. It's a phenomenon.''

Aoun and his supporters hope that their brand of ``people power'' might catch on in the region, sweeping away totalitarian Arab regimes - Syria foremost - whose police-state systems were modeled on those of Eastern Europe.

``From Prague to Beirut, one struggle - freedom,'' declares a banner outside the palace. ``Alexander Dubcek and Michel Aoun.''

While the general is happy to equate his situation with the popular upheavals in Eastern Europe, he is less happy to see parallels drawn with that other major contemporary event - the United States intervention in Panama, which saw the Americans trying to do to Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega exactly what the Syrians would like to do to him.

Diplomats believe the threat of a Syrian attack has receded at least temporarily, while Arab mediators try to find a way of resolving the situation politically. There is no sign that a breakthrough is at hand.

Aoun is still refusing to hand the Baabda palace over to President Elias Hrawi, whose election last month was the first step in implementing an Arab-sponsored peace plan that Aoun rejects on the grounds that it fails to guarantee a full Syrian withdrawal.

But the 20,000 or so Syrian reinforcements rushed to the battlefronts around Baabda a month ago are still there and Aoun's supporters plan to keep up their vigil until they are withdrawn.

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