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Out of Lebanon: Coils of intrigue behind 'back to hanging' call

BEIRUT - Bahij Tabara, the Lebanese Justice Minister, walked into a cabinet meeting this week with a grim proposal: to revive the death penalty for premeditated murder.

A strange project, you might think. After 150,000 dead in 15 years of civil war not a soul was tried for murder. Capital punishment, annulled in 1965, was only briefly resurrected for the hanging of a deranged mass murderer in 1983.

What has concentrated the cabinet's mind is the aftermath of the bombing at the church in Zouk Mikael early last week, when 10 Christian Maronites were cut down at Communion by explosives hidden beneath a statue of the Virgin. Security officials had been expecting such an atrocity since the Pope's 29 May visit to Lebanon was announced, but the massacre at Zouk did more than kill a group of innocent Lebanese worshippers. It re- awoke the sectarian ghosts that were supposed to have been buried in the ruins of the civil war.

Post-war violence had hitherto been a rare phenomenon. But over the past year, a number of incidents have deeply troubled the Lebanese authorities and their mentors in Syria. Christian cemeteries in the Metn hills have been desecrated. An unexploded bomb was found at the convent of Balamand, site of the ancient Maronite college. Then the Christian Phalangist headquarters in Beirut was blown up, killing two men and wounding 130 civilians.

And towards the end of last year attacks were made against Syrian troops in Lebanon. In October, a Syrian soldier was shot dead at a checkpoint at Jamhour, another wounded at Shweifat. That same night, Syrian troops seized 25 Maronite men, most of them supporters of the exiled and anti- Syrian General Michel Aoun, whose expulsion from the presidential palace two years before had ended the civil war. The Christians were taken to military intelligence headquarters and, according to their lawyer, severely beaten before being freed. At the same time, Aounist tracts were found on walls in Christian east Beirut. There were more arrests. In what appears to have been a quite separate development, at least two Christians were accused of trying to assassinate President Elias Hrawi.

Then in January, the Jordanian embassy's first secretary in Beirut, Naeb Maaytah, was murdered outside his home. King Hussein claimed it was the work of an unnamed 'outside power'. The Aounists, who hate their fellow Christians of the Phalange almost as much as they do Syria, alleged that Damascus was behind the killing, on the grounds that it did not like the relations Jordan appeared to be cementing with Israel. The Syrians said they were searching for the killers; and Lebanese police later arrested three Palestinians whom they accused of working for Abu Nidal's assassination squads. Abu Nidal's notorious outfit has in the past worked for Iraq, Syria and Libya. But on neat, headed notepaper, Abu Nidal's men denied involvement.

And then came the church bombing. Rafiq Hariri's pro- Syrian government claimed it was the work of 'Israeli agents'. But the Maronite Patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, speaking only feet from the coffins of the church victims, responded differently. If the government could not look after the people, he suggested, then the people, the Christians, must be allowed to protect themselves. It sounded like a coded appeal to the government to allow the Christian Phalangist militia back on to the streets, especially when Patriarch Sfeir went on to ask why, in contrast to the Phalange, some militias (i e Hizbollah) had 'still not been disarmed'.

Walid Jumblatt, old enemy of the Phalange and leader of the Druze community, smelt 'partitionists' in the air - and received a tirade from the Phalange, who retorted that Mr Jumblatt's long-term goal was 'to destroy Lebanon'. Mr Jumblatt's suspicion, of course, was that a Christian group may have planted the bomb to prove the Lebanese government powerless - and so justify the return of the Christian militias to 'defend' their people. If he was right - and there was no evidence that he was - then perhaps another Christian group planted the bomb at Balamand, even desecrated a Christian cemetery. And how much more impotent would the government appear if the Pope decided to cancel his visit to Lebanon? He has so far refused to do so.

It is to Rafiq Hariri's credit that Lebanon can now absorb violence that three years ago might have re-ignited the civil war. But in two years' time General Aoun's forced exile will expire and he will return to Lebanon, ready to capitalise on any anarchy he finds, to oppose both the Syrians and his old Phalangist antagonists. The Lebanese government has until then to show that crime doesn't pay; which is why 'bring back hanging' turned up on the cabinet's agenda.