Headline .............


Wire Service: RTna (Reuters North America)

Date: Wed, Mar 23, 1994

By Andrew Tarnowski

BEIRUT (Reuter) - A judge Wednesday accused members of Lebanon's biggest civil war Christian militia of bombing a Christian church, killing 11 worshippers and causing fears for the country's stability.

Investigating Judge Joseph Freiha in a statement identified nine suspects in the February 27 bombing and said five were under arrest and four were at large.

Seven of the suspects were members of the Lebanese Forces headed by former warlord Samir Geagea, the statement said. It did not comment on the bombing and offered no explanation of why Christians would bomb a church.

Geagea immediately said those named were either not members of the group, or were unknown to him, or had left the country some time ago. He said authorities were trying to slander the group, which sees itself as the toughest opposition to Lebanon's Syrian-backed government.

The news that Christians are officially accused of the February 27 bombing was likely to shock the Christian minority, which already feels vulnerable and uneasy in postwar Lebanon after emerging weakened from the 1975-90 civil war.

The bombing of the Maronite church of Our Lady of Deliverance at Jounieh, in Lebanon's Christian heartland eight miles north of Beirut, alarmed the Christians and caused fears of renewed sectarian conflict in Lebanon.

Lebanese politicians of all sides speculated that Israel used agents in Lebanon to carry out the bombing in order to distract world attention from the Hebron massacre of about 30 Moslems at prayer by an Israeli gunman two days earlier.

The Lebanese Forces had close links with Israel during the civil war and sent many of its 10,000 fighters there to train.

Freiha said three suspects were members of the LF's security apparatus and four belonged to its elite assault force including Toni Obeid, commander of the force during the 1975-90 civil war.

He said the three security personnel were under arrest but the four assault force members were still at large. He gave no indication that the other two suspects, named as Makram Ali and Julien Fayyad, were linked to the LF.

Geagea told Reuters by telephone from his headquarters in the mountains above Beirut that Obeid had not been in Lebanon for 16 months. He said two other former LF members left the country one year ago and three years ago.

"The suspects are either not Lebanese Forces members or they are outside the country ... This is a slandering operation against the LF," Geagea said.

The bombing was unprecedented in Lebanon. Two wired mortar bombs exploded near the altar while worshippers were taking communion, killing 11 and wounding 59.

Even during the 15-year civil war Christian and Moslem worshippers never came under attack while at prayer.


Reuters Information Services, Inc. 1994