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Lebanon's Zahle: a city besieged and nearly overwhelmed by Syrians

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It was not the Syrian-Israeli missile crisis that set the Lebanese pot boiling, but rather, a dirt road coming from a mountainside town called Zahle. Zahle, a predominately Greek-Catholic city of 200,000 begins in the Bekaa Valley and edges its way up to the Sannin Mountains. The Bekaa Valley, once considered the dairy, fruit, vegetable, and wine "basket" of Lebanon, has newfound notoriety as the station for the Syrian SAM-6 missiles, placed there in April to shoot down Israeli planes.

Last summer, a series of escalating steps led to the current missile crisis.

The Christian Phalangist party, the leading Christian group, attempted to rid Lebanon of the Syrian Arab Deterrent Force (ADF) stationed in Lebanon during the 1975-76 civilwar. The Phalangists considered the Syrian troops, not peace-keepers, but an army of occupation.

During the winter, the Phalange began paving and widening a dirt road connecting Zahle, the provincial capital of the Bekaa, To Niha, about five miles northeast in the foothills of the Sannin Mountains, intending to link up Christian Zahle with the heart of the Christian enclave.

But the Syrians -- trying to prevent the strengthening of the only Christian stronghold threatening Syrian contol of the valley, bombed the road.

On April 1, the Syrians began their siege of Zahle to wipe out an estimated 1 ,000 Phalangist militiamen in the town.

The Syrians have kept Zahle tightly sealed off, allowing in only a few Red cross ambulances with basic food and medical supplies.

Until about two weeks ago, there were no signs of the civilian population escaping. Now, residents are reported to be leaving at night, drawing the population down to about 120,000.

However, these figures, just as casualty figures, are impossible to cite accurately because of the effective vacuum the Syrians have created in Zahle and the lack of authoritative, official agencies within the country to keep such information.

Through phone conversations with Zahle residents and talks with Phalange soldiers, it appears that some 300 to 500 Christian militia are still holding out.

Reports from Beirut residents with family in Zahle say water and electricity are scarce but the spirit of resistance is plentiful.

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