Bomb amnesty prompts US fury: Robert Fisk in Beirut examines why Lebanon's airline is the target of American anger at a pardon for the 1983 attack on its embassy


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AS REPRISALS go, America's retaliation against Lebanon was as weird as it was unjust.

Exactly 24 hours after a Lebanese military court declared that the suicide bombing of the US embassy in Beirut would henceforth be covered by a 'war crimes' amnesty, the New York office of Lebanon's national airline received orders prohibiting it from selling tickets and making reservations for passengers wishing to travel to Beirut. According to the US Transportation Department, Middle East Airlines (MEA) may have been flouting President Reagan's 1985 ban on flights to Lebanon - in which case it could be fined almost dollars 3m ( pounds 1.91m).

On the face of it, America's fury seems understandable. Many of the top CIA station chiefs in the Middle East were among the 63 men and women killed when the Islamic Jihad suicide bomber drove his explosives- laden truck to the front door of the Beirut embassy in April 1983. Most of the victims were Lebanese, many of them burnt alive as they waited for visas to visit the United States.

The Lebanese can argue that with 150,000 deaths in their 15-year civil war, it would be manifestly unfair to confer special status on foreign victims of the conflict. The attack on the embassy was clearly political - the reason for the amnesty - since the Americans had at the time allied themselves with the Israeli-installed Phalangist government of Amin Gemayel. The Beirut court also gave an amnesty for the 1986 murder of a French military attache in front of his embassy, without provoking any outcry from Paris.

But Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Beirut, apparently had no doubts about the affair. How could the US encourage travel to Lebanon and investment in the country, he asked, when those who bombed the US embassy there were 'allowed to go loose'? Mr Crocker has every reason for strong feelings. In 1983, he was a political officer in the embassy and, along with his wife, was among the survivors of the bombing.

But things are not quite that simple. Under the 1985 ban, airline offices in the US are forbidden to sell tickets to Beirut. MEA had got round this problem by booking passengers to Beirut while issuing them with tickets to Damascus. The US authorities had gone along with this gentle deception, knowing that most leading European airlines, and at least one big US carrier, have flouted US law in identical fashion.

Last year, for example, Air France's Washington office booked me a seat to Beirut, but issued me with a ticket to Damascus. If the Americans want to enforce the ban, why don't they investigate Air France as well?

Lebanese authorities suspect they know. For months they have been pleading with Washington to lift the ban on US citizens using American passports to travel to Lebanon. But the Americans have only just renewed the prohibition, on the grounds that foreigners are still at risk when the pro-Iranian Hizbollah remains under arms. The militia does indeed still carry weapons, but uses them now only against Israel's occupation troops in southern Lebanon.

Israel has frequently appealed to the US to use its influence to disarm the Hizbollah, a step that would reduce Israeli casualties in Lebanon and make Israel's occupation easier.

This, the Lebanese believe, is what lies behind the latest attempt to damage MEA, which has survived the country's civil war only to find its meagre income cut by the Americans at the very moment when Lebanon is desperately appealing for reconstruction funds. In Lebanese eyes, MEA is being attacked in order to help Israel.

True, the US believes the Hizbollah were involved in the 1983 embassy bombing. The US certainly raised no objections when the same military court gave an amnesty for the attempted bombing of the Hizbollah's spiritual leader, Mohamed Fadlallah, in 1985, in which 86 Lebanese civilians were killed. But it would have been surprising if the US had complained. For, after the American journalist Bob Woodward's disclosures in his 1987 book, Veil, that bomb is now widely regarded in Washington, as well as in Beirut, to have been the work of the CIA.