Syrian gunners pounded the Christian enclave north of Beirut at nightfall Friday, hitting the Vatican Embassy, and a fuel depot fire set off by artillery forced 100,000 people from their homes, officials said.
The thunder of exploding shells sent thousands of civilians rushing back to underground shelters for a ninth straight night in the capital, and artillery duels killed at least one person and wounded four.That raised the toll to 126 dead and 409 wounded since March 8, when the current round of violence pitted Gen. Michel Aoun's Christian army units against an alliance of Syrian forces and militiamen of Druse warlord Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party.
Police and Christian radio stations said long-range Syrian artillery batteries in Lebanon's central mountains above Beirut blasted population centers in the Christian heartland northeast of the capital.
State-run TV said the Vatican Embassy in the hilltop town of Harisa, 12 miles northeast of Beirut, took direct shell hits, with severe damage but no injuries.
Fires burned for a fifth day at Beirut's main fuel depot in the Christian district of Dora, where a Syrian rocket ignited leaking butane tanks Thursday, causing a blast that shattered windows three miles away. Another rocket set off the blaze Monday.
More gas explosions were feared Friday and firefighters worked around the clock to cool the remaining butane tanks.
Christians also staged a general strike in their enclave northeast of the capital to protest Syrian shelling. The walkout called by the Lebanese Front alliance of Christian parties also paralyzed life in Israel's self-proclaimed security zone of south Lebanon which supports the Christians against Syria.
The Lebanese Front, in a statement, called on the "free world to prevent the war of annihilation Syria is launching against the Lebanese people."
A police spokesman said the Christian enclave, a 310-square-mile crescent-shaped strip northeast of Beirut, was like a "plague-stricken area" Friday. "Nothing moved in the streets of east Beirut and the rest of the Christian enclave" except for fire engines spraying water on the burning fuel depot.
The spokesman said civil defense teams evacuated 100,000 more people from residential areas. That brought to about 150,000 the total evacuated since 14 people were wounded in the butane blast Thursday.
Syria, with 40,000 troops deployed in predominantly Moslem areas of Lebanon under a 1976 peacekeeping mandate from the Arab League, is the main power broker in Lebanon.
Lebanon's leaders accuse the Syrians of failing to achieve their peacekeeping mandate by siding with the Moslems against the Christians in the 14-year-old civil war that has claimed 130,000 lives.