Attacks jolt Lebanese hopes for reconciliation and point up vulnerability of peacekeepers
The dawn bomb attacks on United States and French peacekeeping forces in Beirut have badly shaken the Lebanese - and the few remaining hopes that eight years of violence and bloodshed in Lebanon will ever end.
Coming on the eve of scheduled reconciliation talks, the simultaneous kamikaze-style attacks by trucks laden with some 2,000 pounds of explosives also emphasize the vulnerability of the US, French, British, and Italian contingents who are serving on a peacekeeping mandate in Lebanon.
All four of the forces have come under attack since the new civil strife began in Lebanon in mid-August.
But because of US and French decisions to counterattack by land, sea, or air, both countries have recently been labeled partisan by Muslim dissidents. The dissidents are demanding greater power from the government led by minority Christians.
There were no assaults Sunday against the Italian or British contingents, which have so far not become involved in returning fire.
It was not known at time of writing whether the attacks would affect the long-anticipated summit of Lebanon's leading warlords. The summit is scheduled to convene in Switzerland within the next 10 days. It is aimed at trying to resolve Lebanon's domestic crisis and to decide on a new formula of power-sharing among rival Christians and Muslims. The Sunday bombings underlined what many Lebanese and foreign diplomats feel is the lack of commitment to peace by the various factions and their foreign sponsors.
Diplomatic sources said US officials were involved in heavy negotiations Sunday with various local political leaders, including Nabih Berri, chief of the Amal Shiite Muslim faction, to try to stabilize the situation.
There is little the 5,400-man multinational force can do to avoid the precision terrorist tactics used in the suicide missions, which were identical to the April 18 bombing of the US Embassy and the December 1981 explosion at the Iraqi Embassy.
US Sixth Fleet warships, including the USS New Jersey, closed in around the Beirut coastline after the explosion, but the move seemed only to reflect the impotence of power, since, under the current rules of engagement, there is little the Navy can do in support of the Marines in the vast majority of attacks. The multinational force mandate allows only defensive actions.
Details of the bombings emerged throughout the day as rescue efforts continued. At time of writing estimates were that 135 marines and 27 French soldiers had been killed in the two blasts.
According to sources at the scene, a large truck packed with explosives crashed through two Marine barricades and rammed into the lobby of a four-story Marine battalion headquarters near Beirut airport before exploding. The building housed an estimated 300 men. The blast left a crater 30 feet deep and 40 feet across.
About 20 seconds earlier in a different section of Beirut, another truck, also loaded with explosives, crashed into an eight-story building used by a 77 -man rifle company with the French contingent of the multinational peacekeeping forces.
Both the US facility and the French building collapsed into massive heaps of rubble. The two explosions woke Beirutis living more than 10 miles away.
In both cases, sentries were unable to stop the trucks carrying the explosives. A marine sentry fired five rounds in an attempt to halt the truck at the entrance to the Marines headquarters.
Emergency rescue operations, hampered by sniper fire, continued throughout Sunday to search for dozens of military personnel trapped under the debris.
American officials were not willing to lay blame on any of the many internal and external groups with interests in Lebanon. But a marine source said the US contingent has strong indications about who was behind the blast. He refused to give specifics.
The French commander, Gen. FranCois Cann, said he also had evidence of who was responsible, but he refused to divulge it to reporters.
There appears to be no question of premature withdrawal of the peacekeeping forces. In a brief break from supervising rescue efforts, Col. Tim Geraghty, the Marine commander, said: ''These kinds of things just harden our resolve. We will continue to do what we came here to do, and that is to provide assistance for a free and independent Lebanon.'' And General Cann said the French were committed ''now more than ever'' to the multinational peacekeeping mission.
Although the French commander said his forces would be ''more aggressive'' in the future, he also admitted it would be ''difficult to do more than we do now. We are in charge of this population, so we cannot hide in bunkers outside the people. Otherwise we would have to change the mission.'' The French rifle company was in charge of providing security in an entire suburb.