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Rival Shiite forces resume battle

By ABDEL MAWLA KHALMED

SIDON, Lebanon -- The pro-Syrian Amal movement gained ground Saturday in its ongoing battle against the rival pro-Iranian Hezbollah group for control of a strategic southern region, security sources said.

Sources said Amal militiamen, after fierce fighting that began at midnight, seized the village of Kfar Milki in the district of Iqlim Al Tuffah, east of the port city of Sidon, 24 miles south of Beirut.

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An Amal statement said Amal gunmen tightened control over Kfar Milki and that battles were still raging on the Kfar Fila-Jernaya-Kfar Milki axis at noon.

The statement said the militiamen reached the village's mosque and were just a few meters away from Hezbollah's last positions.

Security sources said Amal took an unspecified number of Hezbollah fighters prisoner during the attack.

Initial medical reports indicated at least 15 people were killed and 22 others wounded in the fighting which erupted at midnight, raising the toll in 13 days of inter-Shiite violence to 132 killed and 295 wounded.

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Medical sources said at least 15 Palestinian guerrillas were among the wounded. The sources said they were taken to the Hamshari Hospital at the entrance of the Ein El Helweh refugee camp, east of Sidon.

Earlier, police said Amal gunmen and Hezbollah fighters traded mortar, heavy and medium artillery and machine gun fire along battle lines in the Tuffah region.

An Amal source said Hezbollah gunmen, under cover of heavy shelling, attacked militia positions in the villages of Jarjou, Arab Saleem and Houmin.

'All attacks were beaten back,' the source said, adding that Amal fighters launched counter-attacks at dawn and tightened control over the village of Kfar Milki.

The source denied that some 450 Palestinian guerrillas who deployed early last week in some areas of the Tuffah region to halt Hezbollah expansion were backing Amal gunmen in their attacks.

Hezbollah has accused the Palestinians of providing artillery cover for Amal offensives.

About 1,700 Palestinian guerrillas backed by military vehicles have been deployed at 30 locations in Houmin, Kfar Abid and Sarba hills overlooking Hezbollah and Amal positions since the Tuffah battles erupted late last December.

It was the Palestinians' biggest expansion in southern Lebanon since Israel crushed the PLO's military infrastructure in southern Lebanon in the 1982 invasion.

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Witnesses said clouds of black smoke covered the embattled areas as hundreds of civilians fled their homes carrying essential belongings.

They said the heavy bombardment on the Tuffah villages set houses and shops afire and foiled a planned rescue operation to evacuate the wounded and corpses that littered the battlefield.

Meanwhile, the command of the Iran's 'Revolutionary Guards,' in a rare statement, called on the rival Shiite factions to end their fighting and sit at the negotiating table.

The Guards said that 2,000 of its members came to Lebanon 'to stand by the oppressed and strugglers to confront the enemies of Islam and humanity.'

The statement published in local newspapers was apparently in response to calls by Amal and its Shiite allies that some 2,000 Revolutionary Guards,stationed in Syrian-policed eastern Lebanon since 1982, be withdrawn from the country.

Some 750 Revolutionary Guards were recently dispatched to the Tuffah region to train and support Hezbollah fighters against the Amal movement.

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