BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Fighting raged for more than eight hours Wednesday night across at least one-third of Lebanon, killing 26 people and wounding 82 others in one of the longest periods of uninterrupted bombardment in the the nation's 14-year-old civil war.
The fighting, which broke out after three days of precarious calm, effectively challenged a new call by the United States for the Christian and Moslem factions to stop the bloodshed and spare the lives of civilians.
Police said the fighting started about seven miles southeast of Beirut along a mountainous front line that separates the Christian enclave from the neighboring Druze-inhabited Shouf mountains.
The battle, which erupted shortly after darkness, pitted Christian troops against Syrian and Druze Moslem gunmen who used tanks, armor-piercing rockets and heavy automatic weapons, police said.
The violence quickly engulfed most confrontation points along the Christian enclave, and developed into heavy rocket and artilley bombardments that hit most areas in and around Beirut and reached the heart of the Syrian-controlled Bekaa valley in eastern Lebanon, police said.
The renewed violence killed 26 people, injured 82 others and destroyed or damaged scores of homes and vehicles, police said, before the factions finally silenced their artillery shortly before daybreak.
Witnesses said several fires burned out of control in east and west Beirut as firefighters appeared unable to act because of the intensity of the shelling.
Among the dead was a 22-year-old man and two children who were showered with mortar shrapnel on a street in the densely-populated Christian neighborhood of Ashrafieh as they were running to reach an underground shelter, witnesses said.
Another five people were killed when a nursing home in west Beirut was directly hit during the fighting, police said.
Military sources said rocket launchers and highly-destructive 240mm and 180mm cannon were used in the attacks.
The exchanges that raged unabated for eight hours involved at least one-third of Lebanon, a Mediterranean country with only 4,015 square miles -- smaller than Connecticut.
Syrian gunners dug in mountains east and northeast of Beirut blasted Christian regions with rocket-launcher rounds and heavy shells, police said.
Lebanese Christian army artillerymen retaliated, pounding most areas in the Syrian-policed Moslem sector of Beirut and nearby mountains, and hit Syrian-controlled regions around the ancient town of Baalbeck in the heart of the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, police said.
John H. Kelley, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and Asian Affairs, said in a statement distributed by the U.S. Embassy, 'There is no excuse for continuing the shelling and depriving innocent people of the necessities of life.'
The U.S. official's call for peace was the latest in a series urging an end to the latest continuing spate of violence, which erupted in mid-March and has killed at least 434 people.
In an apparent hint to Iraq and Syria, Kelly said: 'We have also called upon the parties supplying the various combatants in Lebanon to reconsider their policies in order to lessen tensions.'
While Syria has backed Moslem militia groups for years, Iraq recently threw its weight behind Christian strongman Gen. Michel Aoun, who vowed to drive about 35,000 Syrian troops out of Lebanon.