Tourists skirt Hezbollah 'capital' Tense Lebanese town: Not even Baalbek's stunning Roman ruins could draw tourists to the unspoken capital of the Hezbollah guerrillas whose rockets bedevil northern Israel.

Sun Journal

April 27, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAALBEK, Lebanon -- There used to be a sign in front of the towering Roman temples here that read: "Hezbollah welcomes foreign tourists."

The sign is gone, the tourists are gone and -- judging by appearances -- so are the men of Hezbollah.

When Israel and Hezbollah began their clash two weeks ago, the Hezbollah guerrillas for whom Baalbek is a spiritual and logistical center seemed to melt away.

"You don't see so many 'beards' walking around the streets. You don't see their cars," Abbas Ossman, a Baalbek shop owner, was saying shortly before Israel and Hezbollah agreed to a cease-fire. "I think they have gone into hiding."

Baalbek, in the Bekaa Valley 125 miles away from the two weeks of fighting in the south, is the unspoken capital of Hezbollah, the Islamic "Party of God."

Its fighters had a camp here, their training sent echoes of gunfire from the nearby hills before prayers every Friday, and everyone could watch the young men march through the city with their Kalashnikov rifles.

Locals in town say they also saw shipments of weapons regularly pass through en route from Tehran to South Lebanon.

One source says the traffic recently included three trucks filled with hundreds of Katyusha rocket launchers, the weapons Hezbollah has aimed against northern Israel.

The men of Hezbollah began being less conspicuous more than a year ago, after complaints from merchants that they were scaring away the tourists.

About two months ago, before the latest fighting began, the guerrillas began to disappear from their offices and homes. Many were said to have rented apartments in the city so they would not be so easily pinpointed.

But they are not far away. As Mr. Ossman, the merchant, speaks, a young man with a gun tucked in his belt appears quietly in the shop to listen to the conversation.

"I am Hezbollah," he says when asked, and shows a nasty leg wound he says came from an Israeli helicopter attack two years ago. Why the gun? "You never know when you will run into a spy," he replies.

"People here are worried," Mr. Ossman says after the young man leaves. "The Islamic resistance has bases here, and the people are in favor of Hezbollah, so they worry that Israel will bomb here."

Israel opened its latest campaign with a quick air strike on an isolated, rocky hill in Baalbek that had a Hezbollah machine-gun emplacement, then unmanned. Two days later, it struck the antennas of the Voice of Hezbollah radio and television transmitters, knocking the stations off the air for an hour or so.

But curiously, there were no subsequent Israeli strikes. Perhaps Israel knew the Hezbollah buildings were empty, some say. Perhaps Israel did not want to risk firing so close to Syria, just seven miles away. Perhaps, as others conjecture, it did not want to hit Hezbollah too hard for fear of escalating the conflict.

According to officials of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, Hezbollah has surface-to-air missiles and heavier weapons that it has not fully used, relying instead on the small Katyusha rockets.

"Hezbollah is under orders not to use heavier weapons. And Israel doesn't want to hit them so hard that they will respond with the heavier weapons," a Lebanese journalist said before yesterday's cease-fire.

He asks not to be named, as do many in this wary city. They are fearful of the watching Hezbollah, fearful of the Syrian secret police who prowl the city, fearful of the 50 or so Iranian Revolutionary Guards who remain from a force of several thousand who camped here until about 1990.

"People can still disappear here," says the journalist.

Baalbek has an uneasy relationship with Hezbollah. Many of the residents -- perhaps even most -- support the Islamic group and its aims, but the guerrillas do not present a welcoming image for tourists.

Baalbek is known for its stunning Roman monuments to the gods Jupiter, Venus and Mercury. The Islamic fundamentalists, who start their prayers five times daily with the vow "There is no God but one God," look disapprovingly at monuments to such a heavenly crowd, including scenes lauding the virtues of wine and love.

But for a time, Hezbollah bowed to the financial realities of the community, and tour groups of Europeans began arriving by bus from Damascus. The eruption of fighting April 11 put a quick end to the buses.

"Now there is nothing. All the groups have canceled," sighs Nicolas Saliba, manager of the 122-year-old Palmyra Hotel. He is sitting in his office, a room without lights because of one of the daily electric blackouts that even the cease-fire may not immediately end. The faded and worn hotel has been completely empty for two weeks. "I don't know why. Baalbek is quiet now. Two bombs only," he says.

Cyrille Salim Bustros, archbishop of the small but enduring Greek Catholic community, says that "the influence of Hezbollah is very intense in Baalbek."

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