Christian-led army troops exchanged artillery fire with Druse militiamen Saturday on the hills east of Beirut in a barrage that engulfed a string of villages, the Defense Ministry and the Beirut port.

The Christian-led Cabinet of army commander Michel Aoun ordered the closure of Beirut International Airport because of the fighting, but the Moslem officials in charge of the facility ignored the move.Akram Shehayeb, a senior Druse militia official, said the decree closing the airport by the Christian minister of public works, Brig. Edgar Maalouf, was "a threat that the army would shell the facility in retaliation to the port shelling."

While the worst of the fighting centered around the army's strategic positions at Souk El Gharb, 7 miles southeast of Beirut, Druse gunners from the Syrian-backed Progressive Socialist Party, PSP, also shelled the nearby Defense Ministry compound and the army-held Beirut port.

The army said the Druse artillery barrage was also aimed at the nearby Christian villages of Kahaleh, Jomhour, Yarzeh, Dahr El Wahsh and Araya.

A PSP source said the army's heavy artillery pounded the Druse-held villages of Alley, Bhamdoun, Baysour and Abadieh.

There was no casualty report as the fighting continued into the night, police said.