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The street battles took the lives of at least 40 people, who were killed as the rival militias slugged it out with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. Several shells crashed into an Islamic orphanage housing hundreds of children. Some were handicapped, and many had lost both parents in previous waves of communal violence. "The children were terrified," an official said later. "They ran about crying and screaming." At one point the Sunni radio station, Voice of Arab Lebanon, broadcast an appeal to the combatants to stop fighting around the orphanage. Like other appeals for ceasefires that night, it went unheeded.
The Murabitun radio station and party headquarters also took a pounding: floors collapsed, pillars buckled, and steel reinforcing rods bent into bizarre shapes. Later, Amal militiamen could be seen standing guard outside the gutted building. Emblazoned on a concrete slab at the entrance was a Murabitun slogan: WHAT IS TAKEN BY FORCE IS REGAINED ONLY BY FORCE.
As families cowered in basements or sought safety in stairwells, bullets chipped angry patterns along walls and sliced through windows. Glass tinkled on the streets below. "It was worse than even the summer of 1982," said Jamal Solh, a housewife, referring to the Israeli siege of the Lebanese capital, when thousands of shells and bombs rained down on the city for several weeks. "We thought the world was coming to an end." In some districts, Amal militiamen conducted door-to-door searches for Sunni snipers. One Palestinian family of five was murdered by unidentified gunmen.
Traditionally the Sunnis have been the second most important of Lebanon's 17 officially recognized religious groups. Under the "national covenant" worked out at the time of the country's independence in 1943, the Prime Minister is always a Sunni, the President a Maronite Christian and the speaker of parliament a Shi'ite. Such an arrangement no longer appears to be satisfactory to the Shi'ites. Demographic changes, particularly the influx of large numbers of Shi'ites from southern Lebanon following the Israeli invasions of 1978 and 1982, have upset the political balance in West Beirut. Much of the predominantly Muslim half of the city, as a result, has been carved up between the Shi'ites and the Druze.
The news from elsewhere in Lebanon last week was equally discouraging. A standoff continued between President Amin Gemayel and Christian militiamen who oppose many of his policies. In the port city of Sidon, the arrival of Lebanese army forces did not halt two weeks of fighting between Christian and Muslim gunmen in which more than 90 people have been killed. In southern Lebanon, Israeli forces continued their painful withdrawal, which they hope to complete by the end of May. Behind them, as part of the upheaval produced by the 1982 invasion, they are leaving a Shi'ite guerrilla movement of undetermined strength. Last week the Israelis showered leaflets from a helicopter warning that attacks on Israel's northern settlements from across the border would bring swift retaliation. "Israel's long arm," said the message, "will reach every inciter and every terrorist. Think about your wife, children and parents." --By William E. Smith. Reported by John Borrell/Beirut