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Wire Service: RTw (Reuters World Report)

Date: Thu, Mar 24, 1994

By Haitham Haddadin

BEIRUT, March 24 (Reuter) - The Lebanese Forces, banned after several of its members were accused of bombing a church, is a former militia with a long and bloody history.

It took part in the massacre of hundreds of unarmed Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Chatila camps in Beirut in 1982 under the eyes of the invading Israeli army.

As the biggest Christian militia in the 1975-90 civil war the LF took on various rivals to dominate Lebanon's 1.5 million Christian minority.

Since becoming a political party in 1990, when armed factions were disbanded, it has advocated a federal system giving Christians a self-governed area.

The LF saw itself as the toughest post-war opposition to the Syrian-backed government, and its chief Samir Geagea, a Maronite Christian, refused to join any cabinet backed by Damascus.

But his decision left Lebanon's once-dominant Christian minority outside the mainstream of politics.

Geagea denied the LF was involved in the church bombing last month, which killed 11 worshippers. He said the arrest of his second-in-command Fouad Malek was a political measure designed to muzzle the Christian opposition.

The authorities said seven LF members were among nine people arrested or wanted in connection with the February 27 bombing of Our Lady of Deliverance church at Jounieh north of Beirut.

Since the government banned the group he has refused to comment or see visitors at his headquarters in the mountains above Beirut, where he has been holed up ringed by army roadblocks for two weeks.

Founded as the military wing of the rightwing Falange Party, the mainstream Christian party, the Lebanese Forces became the biggest Christian militia during the civil war after unifying various smaller militias, sometimes by force.

Led by Bashir Gemayel, who was killed in a bomb blast after being elected Lebanon's president in 1982, LF militiamen massacred members of the rival Tigers Christian militia of Dani Chamoun in 1980.

The LF had close ties with the Israelis during the war.

Geagea became LF chief in 1986 after ousting rival Elie Hobeika in a battle between rival factions in which hundreds of Christian fighters died.

After four months of inter-Christian fighting with troops loyal to then rebel army commander Michel Aoun in 1990 that cost more than 1,100 lives, the LF accepted an Arab-sponsored peace pact giving Moslems more say in Lebanon's Christian-dominated political system.

Many diplomats have said the LF-Aoun war cleared the way for a Syrian peace by tearing apart the Christians until they lost their traditional power and foreign protection.


Reuters Information Services, Inc. 1994