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Heavy fighting wracks Tripoli

TRIPOLI, Lebanon -- Heavy fighting broke out Monday between Syrian troopsand Lebanese supporters of Yasser Arafat, with shells crashing around his headquarters in the worst clashes since a cease-fire agreement 11 days ago.

The battle eased in the evening two hours after it began, but intermittent shelling continued to be heard across the northern port city.

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Witnesses said it was the first time since the Nov. 25 cease-fire between rival Palestinian factions that residential areas were shelled and civilians were forced into bomb shelters.

Several shells fell in the Tripoli neighborhood where Arafat, the embattled chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, has his offices.

Ambulances raced through the city's streets, but no casualty figures were available.

Witness said the fighting pitted Syrian forces of the regular army and the elite Red Cavaliers against Lebanese fighters of the pro-Arafat Tawheed militia.

They said the Syrians were aided by Palestinian rebels fighting to end Arafat's 14-year-rule of the PLO. A spokesman for Arafat said his fighters did not participate in the fighting.

Mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons were used in the battle, they said.

Tawheed positions in Tripoli were hit, but a spokesman for the group said it pushed back an advance by Syrians and Palestinians on two Tripoli neighborhoods.

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Lebanese Christian Phalange radio said in Beirut that the Tripoli clashes sent shells falling near a hospital operated by the International Red Cross.

City leaders met with Arafat Monday to discuss the details of his departure from Tripoli and what route his 4,000 to 5,000 fighters will use when leaving the embattled city.

Arafat's spokesman, Ahmad Abdel Rahman, said the PLO chairman had dropped a demand for an Arab observer force to oversee the evacuation of his men and had agreed to 'any escort force,' including one composed of Tripoli's security forces.

Arafat has agreed to leave Tripoli, where his forces have been under siege by Syrian-supported Palestinian rebels for a month, but no departure date has been set.

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