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Arafat's loss of last stronghold is more political than military

The fall of PLO chief Yasser Arafat's last military stronghold is seen more as a serious political loss than a military one. Arafat aides had already conceded they could not hope to hold off dissidents within the Palestine Liberation Organization's Al-Fatah faction much longer.

The Syrian-backed rebels overwhelmed the remaining Arafat loyalists Wednesday at the Baddawi refugee camp on the outskirts of Tripoli in northern Lebanon.

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Mr. Arafat had counted on pressure on Syria from the Soviet Union and the Arab world to help him organize a departure that would save his political face and reputation, as well as provide time to establish a means for guaranteeing the safety of civilians and guerrillas left behind. Now more than ever he is at the mercy of mutineers trying to overthrow his leadership of the PLO.

The Soviets had made clear their displeasure with Syria's role in the mutiny during talks in Moscow last week between the Syrian and Soviet foreign ministers.

Loyalists had hoped the Soviet intervention would help consolidate the shaky cease-fire arranged last week by an Arab delegation during talks in Damascus. An Arafat spokesman said the PLO chief was to have sent a negotiating team to the Syrian capital to find terms to end the conflict, with aid from other Arab countries.

Palestinian sources claimed Soviet leader Yuri Andropov himself had become involved in the feud between Arafat and Syrian President Hafez Assad. Al-Qabas, a Kuwaiti paper noted for its Soviet connections, printed the text of two messages sent by Mr. Andropov. The Soviet leader reportedly wrote that Syria ''could bring the fighting to an end, at least.''

''Safeguarding the unity of the PLO is a basic and inalienable policy of the Soviet Union,'' Andropov is quoted as writing. ''A continuation of fighting threatens both Syrian interests and the accomplishments of the Palestinian people.''

In a sharp reminder that Moscow provides Syria with all of its military equipment and expertise, Andropov allegedly reprimanded Syria: ''The Soviet Union has been supplying you (Syria) with arms for use against the enemies of the Arabs, but not for use by Arabs against Palestinians.''

But the pressure tactics by the Soviets and several key Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Kuwait, did not seem to have much impact on the stubborn Mr. Assad. The cease-fire lasted only five days.

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Intense fighting broke out again Tuesday around Baddawi and Tripoli. (The second Palestinian camp, Nahr Al-Bared, fell more than a week ago.) The final assault began before dawn cracked over the mountainous northern area Wednesday. It lasted only eight hours, when rebels led by Abu Musa announced the capture of the refugee camp.

Isolated pockets of resistance continued, as the sound of machine guns and small arms occasionally broke the calm. Arafat aides vigorously denied the camp had been lost. But Lebanese officials finally confirmed the rebel claims on state-controlled Beirut radio.

Eyewitnesses said rebels used loudspeakers to appeal to holdout loyalists to put down their arms, while urging civilians to remain indoors. A rebel spokesman also announced that dissident forces would not attack Tripoli, and he called on local leaders to persuade Arafat to leave quietly - and soon.

Despite a long-standing loyalty to the man who has led the PLO for 15 years, many of the leading local figures in Tripoli are reported to be intent on avoiding a major confrontation for the moderate wing of the Palestinian movement , and the victory needed to guarantee the rise of militants loyal to Syria and opposed to any negotiated settlement of the 35-year Arab-Israeli conflict.

Arafat may still hope he can salvage something at a general congress of Fatah - which accounts for roughly 80 percent of the Palestine Liberation Organization - that he called for early next year. The Fatah meeting is to be followed by the annual summit of the Palestine National Council, which includes all eight factions.

The rebels have long been demanding a congress to elect a new collective leadership that would remove the authoritarian powers of the PLO chief. But it now appears the mutineers and the Syrians want to remove Arafat completely.

Without a single remaining military base, Arafat will have a difficult time arguing he should continue to have any more than a figurehead role in the movement.

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