BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Rival Shiite militiamen battled for the fourth day Tuesday in Beirut's suburbs and southern Lebanon, defying a reported appeal by Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to halt the warfare.
After daylong skirmishes with small arms, gunmen of the pro-Syrian Amal movement and the rival Iranian-backed Hezbollah, switched to jeep-mounted recoiless cannons, armor-piercing rockets and heavy atuomatic weapons at dusk.
Their street fighting engulfed the impoverished, bullet-scarred suburbs south of Beirut and a cluster of villates in the district of Iklim Al Tofah, 28 miles south of the capital.
Police said at least 24 people have been killed since new year's eve with 61 others wounded. The fighting is the latest round in a 10-month struggle for leadership of Lebanon's estimated 1 million Shiite, the largest Moslem sect in the country and biggest segment of Lebanon's 3 million people.
On Tuesday, the sound of strong winds and heavy rain mingled with deafening gun blasts echoed from the embattled area, where black smoke rose into the cloudy skies from burning cars and houses.
Hundreds of families have fled the slum area, home for more than 300,000 people, to safer places in west Beirut.
Moslem radio stations quoted Sheikh Mohammed Mehdi Shams Eddine as conveying to the rivals what he termed 'an appeal by Ayatollah Khomeini to halt the random killings between the Moslem brethern.'
Shams Eddine, the president of the Higher Shiite Council, a coalition of moderate Shiite figures, has recently paid a visit to Iran, discussing ways to halt the warfare.
The radio stations said Syria, which has some 14,000 troops trying to maintain order in Moslem west Beirut and the city's southern slums, made several attempts to stop the fighting.
Iran, hoping to export its Islamic fundamentalist revolution, started to establish a foothold in Lebanon in 1982 by forming Hezbollah, or Party of God. Syria has backed Amal, a more moderate group, bent on having more share of power within the Lebanese system.
The Amal-Hezbollah armed confrontations broke out last April, when Amal crushed Hezbollah's military infrastructure in southern Lebanon.
Shams Eddine and several leading Shiite figures have urged Syria to disarm both Amal and Hezbollah in the densely-populated Beirut's suburbs.
Syrian troops forced militiamen in west Beirut to surrender their arms when they were deployed in the Moslem part Feb. 22, 1987. But their role in the suburbs, since May, has been confined to maintaining roadblocks and staging patrols.
It is widely believed that some or all of the 15 foreign hostages - including nine Americans -- are held at secret hideouts in the embattled suburbs of the capital.
According to police estimates more than 400 people have been killed in the inter-Shiite conflict since April.