ZAHLE, Eastern Lebanon -- U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher on Wednesday tested the strength of the truce he brokered last week between Israel and Arab guerrillas by meeting Lebanese officials in a valley where much of the fighting took place.
Although the talks Christopher held in the city of Zahle with President Elias Hrawi, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, House Speaker Nabih Berri and Foreign Minister Fares Boueiz were several miles from the region Israeli jet fighters and artillery pounded Iranian-backed Hezbollah militiamen, he took no chances.
His bullet-proof Cadillac limousine was surrounded by a wagon trail of heavily armed Lebanese soldiers and Syrian Mokhabarat, secret police, as he sneaked up the infamous Damascus-Beirut highway.
A handful of reporters accompanying the secretary of state on his six-day tour in the Middle East, which was intended to jump-start the stalled peace talks, were permitted to follow behind in bullet-proof jeeps.
'My presence here today is designed to reaffirm the fact that the U. S. cares about Lebanon,' Christopher said during a news conference after the meeting and a closed session with Hrawi.
Christopher expressed compassion for the Lebanese who were forced out of their homes during last week's Israeli attacks and announced several steps to help ease their ordeal.
He said food aid and some 750 bed hospitals worth $11 million will be shipped to Lebanon while contacts to encourage other countries around the world for similar assistance were underway.
Christopher said Washington was ready to discuss supplying the Lebanese Army with weapons in light of its new deployment in southern Lebanon.
Lebanese Army troops have been fortifying positions in southern Lebanon since a cease-fire was announced Saturday as part of a plan to restrain guerrillas and restore calm in the embattled region.
The truce was made possible after Hezbollah fighters stopped firing Katysha rockets into norther Israel in return for Israel ceasing attacks on Lebanese villages that left 121 dead, 500 wounded and a half million people displaced.
'I am optimistic that the cease-fire and cessation of hostilities and the terms agreed to by the parties will be maintained,' Christopher said.
He expressed support for the Beirut government's decision to deploy Army troops in areas under the control of the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, UNIFIL.
Christopher seemed confident that, despite last week's violence, Lebanon was prepared to continue the peace talks.
'We have salvaged the process and I think we would be able to resume discussions that I hope were energized by these events,' Christopher said during the news conference.NEWLN: moreNEWLN:ccccqqe
Boueiz linked the violence in southern Lebanon to the continued Israeli occupation of territory in the area and emphasized the right of all Lebanese group to offer resistance.
'The only solution to this problem is the total withdrawal of Israel behind the internationally recognized boundaries,' the Lebanese foreign minister said.
Boueiz warned against using southern Lebanon 'as a battlefield for exerting pressure on the Arabs' at the Middle East peace talks.
Christopher was to head back to Damascus before boarding a plane to Israel later Wednesday.
His unplanned two-hour visit to Lebanon upset Berri, who said he joined the Zahle meeting only at the request of Hrawi.
Berri said Christopher should have included Lebanon from the beginning in his Middle East tour and said the Lebanese-U.S. talks should have taken place in either Beirut or southern Lebanon.
Referring to last week's Israeli bombings of southern and eastern Lebanon, Berri said: 'The U.S. should know that the green light it gave to Israel only leads to disasters.'
Sources said the Lebanese officials would demand the immediate application of U.N. Security Council Resolution 425, which calls for the unconditional pullout of Israeli troops from occupied parts of southern Lebanon and the expansion of state authority over all Lebanese territories.
Earlier in the day, Christopher met in Damascus with Syrian President Hafez Assad and Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa.
The fighting in south Lebanon between Israeli and Iranian-backed guerrillas had prompted U.S. President Bill Clinton to summon Christopher home early from an Asian trip. Clinton and Christopher then began a round of diplomacy to stop the shelling and pave the way for Christopher's trip to the region.
Christopher said the cooperation he found during that effort may be something that can be built into the stalled Middle East peace process.
'Recent events have salvaged the peace process and we are back on track,' Christopher said. 'Out of (the consultations) comes my firm conviction that a new opportunity may have emerged in the peace process. '
Christopher's assessment, however, was shot down by Sharaa, who said 'we cannot talk about any progress' in the wake of recent Israeli aggressions.
But Sharaa said Christopher's efforts in brokering a truce at least prevented the peace process from dissolving.
'Recent events in Lebanon, had they continued, would have buried the peace talks in the rubble of Lebanon,' he said.
Sharaa also reiterated a pledge he had given to former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and to Christopher that Syrian Jews would be allowed to emigrate freely.
He said recent 'bureacratic difficulties' that have made it difficult for the approximately 1,300 Syrian Jews to leave the country were a burden for all citizens.NEWLN: ccccqqe