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Beirut calm as militias drop out of sight. Syrian-backed security plan has restored a semblance of normality

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The latest Syrian-backed security plan for west Beirut has succeeded so far in bringing a large measure of calm to the Lebanese capital's turbulent Muslim quarters. In Christian east Beirut, too, there has been a sharp drop in tension, following a new agreement between rival Christian militia factions supporting and opposing President Amin Gemayel.

But on both sides of the line, fears are being expressed that the current lull may be only a temporary truce and not the beginnings of the permanent settlement Syria says it is determined to help bring about.

The most dramatic visible transformation has been in west Beirut, where the new security plan announced July 9 by Muslim leaders meeting in Damascus went into effect just one week ago.

Since then, the Muslim and Druze militiamen who ruled the streets have largely disappeared from view. Many of the militia and party offices that had mushroomed throughout west Beirut have been closed down. Sandbag fortifications and militia checkpoints have been dismantled.

The ``coordinating committee'' supervising implementation of the plan -- the committee includes Syrian military observers -- is overseeing the removal or obliteration of the symbols, slogans, and graffiti daubed on walls by rival Muslim and Druze gunmen staking claim to this or that patch of urban territory.

Public security is visibly back in the hands of the state forces. Paramilitary police run patrols and man checkpoints, backed by special Army units authorized to intervene when necessary. Clashes have occurred intermittently along the Christian-Muslim confrontation line, but the fighting among Sunni, Shiite, and Druze gunmen in west Beirut that led to the Damascus agreement has largely been stifled.

Travelers passing through Beirut airport -- which is included in the new plan -- report that security there is also much improved. Muslim and Druze militia gunmen, who used to wander in and out of the airport terminal at will, are nowhere to be seen. Security screening is much tighter, and fortifications have been erected to prevent unauthorized access through the airport perimeter. (Before the new plan, this reporter's driver once took a shortcut across the airport runway to avoid an inconvenient tailb ack on the adjacent public highway.)

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