US envoy's view of Mid-East prospects puzzles Lebanese: Christopher says last week's Israeli bombings of villages in south 'offers a new opportunity for peace'

IT WAS a disturbing visit for the Lebanese. It was not Warren Christopher's armoury that worried them, although the US Secretary of State arrived at President Elias Hrawi's villa at Zahle yesterday with enough gunmen, bodyguards and identikit M-16 toting Rambos to deter an Israeli air raid or two.

Mr Hrawi did have some last- minute problems installing new air conditioning for the elderly Mr Christopher, although a US diplomat was laid back enough to turn up reading Lawrence Durrell's The Dark Labyrinth, a title that fairly reflected the Lebanese government's problems.

For what troubled Mr Hrawi and his Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri - according to the Lebanese wandering about the villa - was the tacit message Mr Christopher brought: forget UN Security Council resolution 425, move forward in peace talks with the Israelis, break free of Syrian control. And remember what happened in southern Lebanon last week.

On the surface, all was friendly. Mr Christopher arrived overland with his armoured cavalcade from the Syrian border after talks with President Hafez Assad at which the two men agreed 'much harder work is required' in the peace process. Last week's Israeli bombardment of the villages of south Lebanon, Mr Christopher said, was 'a remainder of what the region could look like if peace doesn't come'. And, astonishingly, he added that the bombings 'offered a new opportunity for peace'. This puzzled the Lebanese.

But their concern focused on the US's longstanding demands to the Lebanese negotiators in Washington, who have refused to abandon UN resolution 425 calling for an unconditional Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, in favour of bilateral talks that would, in Lebanese eyes, reward Israel with post-peace trade and water agreements in return for ending their occupation.

'The Americans are pushing harder and harder for us to break with the Syrians,' a Lebanaese official said. 'But we cannot do that. The Syrians are very strong. Yet the US is saying we must press ahead with our talks with Israel in front of the Syrians.'

If the official's report is accurate - and given his access, it should be - then Mr Christopher's comments in Damascus yesterday were a good deal less innocent than they sounded. That the Israeli bombing of Lebanon, which killed 128 people and drove 300,000 refugees on to the roads, might provide a new opportunity for peace is exactly what Israeli leaders have been saying. And the suggestion that massive Israeli raids might follow a breakdown in the peace talks sounded to the Lebanese distinctly unnerving. Was this an observation or a threat from Mr Christopher?

Mr Hariri is said to be under increasing pressure from the Americans to fall in line with their peace talks scenario - pressure which he is so far resisting. 'Syria is not going to allow us to do this,' another Lebanese said in the gardens of the Hrawi villa. 'Syria is more powerful here than Israel, and Syria does not want Lebanon making deals with the Israelis until it knows it will get back the Golan Heights from Israel. So we want to know: what will be the price of refusing what Israel and America want?

In apparent vindication of the Israeli contention that its operation in Lebanon would not only not harm the peace process but give it a push, Syria's Foreign Minister, Farouk ash- Shar, said the Syrians 'feel somewhat optimistic' that Mr Christopher's visit will get peace talks moving, writes Charles Richards. Mr Shar said at a news conference with Mr Christopher that 'the recent events in Lebanon, had they continued - the shelling, the bombardment - would have buried the peace process'.