Christian Militia Under Siege In Lebanon as Tensions Rise

Syria, sensing peace with Israel, may be trying to remove potential annoyances

LEBANON'S Christian militia, once the mightiest force in the land, has been effectively wiped off the country's political map after being blamed for the bomb that killed 11 people at a church nearly six weeks ago.

Lebanon has been largely at peace for the past three years. Militias such as the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF), spawned by 17 years of sectarian strife, were disarmed, dissolved, and turned into political parties.

But sectarian tensions have been growing again, and the head of the Maronite Church, Patriarch Nasrullah Sfeir, used his Easter address to accuse the Syrian-backed government of excluding the Christians from power and cracking down on them more than on the Muslims.

The Lebanese Forces leader, Samir Geagea, is under virtual house arrest in his mountain retreat at Ghidras, north of Beirut, with Lebanese Army checkpoints controlling all the access routes.

Fuad Malek - a former Army major who became the militia's chief of staff, then head of the political party set up when it disbanded its military apparatus - is under arrest and being held at the Defense Ministry.

The LF's offices, and Mr. Geagea's private chalet in Faraya, have been raided and ransacked by the Lebanese Army. Scores of LF partisans have been picked up by the Army, though most are released after alleged none-too-gentle questioning.

The LF was formally dissolved by government decree March 23. No official reason was given, but the same day, Mr. Malek was detained, and arrest warrants were issued for nine other people, some of them, officials say, linked to the party.

Despite these Draconian measures, the attorney general, Munif Oweidat, says the investigating magistrate has yet to uncover evidence proving the LF's involvement in the Feb. 27 bombing of the Sunday morning mass in Zouk Mikhail, near Jounieh.

``On the evidence so far available, nobody can say the LF as an institution is the author of this crime, although it's possible that some former members of it or another party could have taken part,'' Mr. Oweidat said in an interview with the Monitor. ``The government's liquidation of the LF was done on its own political and legal responsibility, not on behalf of the judiciary.''

The LF claims it is the victim of a politically motivated frame-up. It says three former LF officials, for whom arrest warrants were issued in absentia, have been in Canada and Australia for several years, and that of the five people actually arrested in connection with the bombing, only one was ever in the militia and he left it in 1990.

GEAGEA'S final fall from grace was sudden and bewildering. A few days before the church bombing, he and his wife were guests at a dinner for four at Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri's residence.

His predicament vividly illustrates how much the political wheel has turned since the LF's heyday 12 years ago, when it collaborated in the Israeli invasion and siege of Beirut.

Its then-commander, Bashir Gemayel, was elected president of Lebanon - only to be killed by a massive bomb before he could take office. His militia vented its rage by killing hundreds of defenseless Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

In the months that followed, the LF and the Lebanese Army worked hand-in-glove. Many leftists, Muslims, and Palestinians disappeared from West Beirut and elsewhere after a midnight knock at the door. Hundreds never returned.

But now, with the Syrians holding uncontested sway over the Lebanese political arena, it is the LF and other hard-line Christian partisans who sit in fear of the midnight knock on the door.

Fr. Sfeir, in his Good Friday sermon, denounced ``the violation of human rights to which those detained by the security apparatus are subjected.'' He complained that security forces were picking on Christians more than Muslims. He also denounced the government decree banning the broadcast of news or political programs on the private radio or TV stations, which coincided with the dissolution of the LF.

The field has been left open to rumors and speculation over who was behind the church bombing and the motives behind the summary liquidation of the LF.

On the latter count, one theory considered by Lebanese observers is that the Syrians, sensing a forthcoming breakthrough in peace efforts with Israel, are keen to eliminate any potential source of future annoyance should they be required in any deal to withdraw from most of Lebanon.

By that argument, next on the list for a crackdown should be the Hizbullah Shiite militants, who continue to operate against the Israelis. But they, unlike the LF, are seen as a card in Syria's hand, not a thorn in its side.

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