Japan's top archaeologist sat in the burned-out Rivoli cinema on Beirut's Green Line battlefront and spoke of building peace on ruins older than those wrought by 13 years of civil war.

Against an improbable background of broken glass and ruined buildings, Professor Namio Egami outlined plans to excavate a vast area of ancient Beirut and preserve it as the heart of a new, modern capital."We think the long time of war and struggle is nearly finished and the time has come to restore eternal peace and reveal the city," Egami, 82, president of the Japanese Archaeologists Association and a Middle East specialist with extensive experience in Iran and Iraq, told Reuters.

"This is a chance to reveal the history of Lebanon, the Canaanite, Phoenician and Roman periods," said Egami who is aided in the project by fellow archaeologist Professor Hideo Fujii of Kokushi Kan University.

"We want to make here a symbol, an archaeological site kept forever as a symbol of eternal peace," he said.

The site, last visited by moviegoers over a decade ago, is thought to cover a city built by the Phoenicians, the seafaring traders who dominated the east Mediterranean some 10 centuries before Christ.

Teams of Lebanese armed with picks and shovels were digging two trenches at the Rivoli end of Martyrs' Square, surrounded by crumbling buildings tattooed by the pockmarks of war.

Egami would not confirm any agreement but said he was unafraid. "This is a neutral zone. They have stopped shooting now. The time is coming for peace," he said.