TRIPOLI, Lebanon -- Israeli gunboats twice bombarded Yasser Arafat's trapped guerrilla army with rockets and cannon fire today while the White House was publicly urging Israel to hold its fire.
'A mad bombardment of the whole coastal area started at 8pm (1 p.m. EST). Tripoli has never seen such a bombardment. All residents have rushed back to the shelters,' a resident said.
About four hours earlier, dozens of shells and rockets fell in an hour-long bombardment by three Israeli gunboats of Arafat's positions in the port area and the southern coastal road.
The military command in Tel Aviv confirmed that Israeli gunboats shelled Palestinian 'bases and depots' along the coastal road south of the northern Lebanese port city in the afternoon.
Beirut radio said the first Israeli bombardment included positions along the shore from the southern sectors of Tripoli all the way to the Mina port.
Israeli military sources said their gunboats returned to base safely despite cannon fire directed at them from the coast. 'Our forces suffered no casualties,' the military command said in an announcement.
There was no immediate Israeli comment on the second bombardment four hours later.
In Washington, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said the United States supported the safe, 'unhampered' evacuation of Arafat's PLO forces in Tripoli.
'The withdrawal of Arafat's forces holds the promise of avoiding greater suffering of the people of Tripoli,' Speakes said. 'The United States supports the withdrawal of Arafat and the PLO from Tripoli.'
Five Greek ships have been ready to sail to Tripoli since Saturday, but their departure has been delayed until Greek officials are able to secure guarantees that they will receive safe passage.
Before the reported attack, the PLO factions exchanged mortar and small arms fire as Arafat's 4,000 men wait to be transported to Algeria and North Yemen.
Residents said the clashes flared for 45 minutes in the afternoon, but there was no immediate report on casualties.
Arafat's spokesman, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, told official Beirut Radio that the loyal guerrillas would go to Algeria instead of Tunisia as originally arranged.
About 1,000 of the Palestinians released by Israel in a prisoner swap last month are in Algeria, which is a member of the pro-Soviet Steadfastness Front.
'We have no forces going to Tunis. Our forces are going to Algeria,' Rahman said. He gave no explanation for the change.
The PLO guerrillas who went to Tunis after being forced out of Beirut by the Israelis in the summer of 1982 are reportedly living under rigid government restrictions limiting their movements in Tunisia.
The Beirut daily An Nahar said Tunis was not prepared to accept the new PLO fighters and that 'no official or unofficial contacts' had been held between Arafat and Tunisian authorities to prepare for their arrival.
Rahman had reiterated calls Monday for Syrian and Saudi air cover to protect the departing fighters against the possibility of another Israeli raid.