Lebanese troops seek Scarlet Pimpernel of the Bekaa Valley

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The Independent Online
Thousands of Lebanese troops continued to search for the renegade Hizbollah cleric Sheikh Sobhi Tofeili in the Bekaa Valley yesterday after a gun battle in which up to 18 people were killed. But, as Robert Fisk reports from Baalbek, the would be Shia revolutionary may have got away.

The blood of a soldier lay on the rough ground below the religious seminary, thick and fatal, a cap soaked in red beside the dark pool. Did the soldier's mother knit this thick woollen protection for the bitter cold of the Bekaa nights? Was this the place of martyrdom of 1st Lieutenant Jean Wehbe, or Sergeant Abdo Haj, or Private Nicolas Rizk? All three Lebanese soldiers died in the battle with Sheikh Sobhi Tofeili's gunmen on Friday night and this infantryman - so the locals said - had been shot in the head.

And then there was the body in the neighbouring house. Shahira Moussa was just 17 when she was hit by a stray bullet during the shoot-out. She lay like an angel in the family sitting room, a startlingly pretty young woman with high cheekbones and fair hair, awaiting burial within the hour.

And there was Khodr Tleiss, a former MP who died a few hundred yards from her. He was a Shia cleric - like Tofeili - and wore a turban and brown robes. In the Baalbek city mortuary, there was no turban; just a balding head and closed eyes amid the frosted cabinets.

Did he die trying to secure a ceasefire? No one knows. At least eight men and women were killed, and Tleiss was buried yesterday in the village of Britel, a hundred cars accompanying the corpse - no journalists at the funeral, the Lebanese army insisted - amid curses against both Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, and Iran. Sheikh Tofeili's "revolution of the hungry" had collapsed in gunfire, but supporters of the bearded cleric - who helped to found the pro-Iranian Hizbollah and then split from the movement to campaign (so he claimed) for the poor of Lebanon's eastern Bekaa valley - regarded the present Hizbollah leader and his backers as traitors.

That was how the Lebanese army viewed Tofeili. The one-time religious student-friend of Ayatollah Khomeini had taken over a Hizbollah school on Friday, refused to leave when the army ordered him out and made his way home to Britel only after eight - some say 18 - men and women had been killed in the subsequent siege. He had split the Hizbollah, infuriated the Lebanese government by his calls for rebellion, and had now enraged the army.

No wonder they surrounded Britel with so many tanks and armoured personnel carriers and troops yesterday. Under the cold winter sunshine, the orchard village looked more innocent than the snow-smothered mountains on either side of it. But was Tofeili there? True, it was his home village. True, he had headed south after the school siege. True, the Lebanese soldiers stood in the cold fields and beside the abandoned garages around the village. But word had it that the bespectacled cleric had slipped away, Pimpernel- like, into some neighbouring hamlet.

Next week, on a pre-arranged visit, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri - the speaker of the Iranian parliament, no less - is due to arrive in Damascus. Word had it in the Bekaa yesterday that he might mediate Sheikh Tofeili's departure from Lebanon. Certainly, Tofeili had been on his mobile phone to the Iranians on Saturday morning.

But in his last interview - to The Independent, only hours before the battle - he had expressed his contempt for both arrest and death. No wonder the Hizbollah's spiritual leader, Sheikh Mohamed Fadlallah, yesterday appealed to the Lebanese authorities to spare the village of Britel and its civilian inhabitants.

As for Sheikh Tofeili, they seek him here, they seek him there ...