TEL AVIV (Feb. 24)
Israeli jets smashed the two main Arab terrorist bases in Syria early this morning and shot down two of an unspecified number of Syrian MIGs that rose to challenge them in four dogfights in the skies over Syria, a military spokesman announced today. The targets were El Hamma, the main El Fatah base six miles from Damascus, and Mesaloun, a subsidiary camp near the Lebanese border on the Damascus-Beirut highway. All of the Israeli aircraft returned safely to their bases, the spokesman said. (Damascus radio claimed that three French-built Israeli Mirage jets were shot down and acknowledged the loss of two Syrian MIGs.)
El Hamma and Masaloun were the main training and logistical centers for Arab saboteurs. Virtually all terrorists captured in Israel recently admitted having passed through the camps en route to their sabotage missions. El Hamma was also the site of the El Fatah command for Syria and Lebanon and a recruiting center and supply depot for terrorists coming from Egypt and Algeria. It contained arms, arsenals, buildings, tents and a prison.
The two camps were heavily bombed with tons of explosives. Returning Israeli pilots reported seeing large fires. The strike was the first Israeli air action over Syria since the June, 1967 war. The Israeli pilots said the Syrian fighters sent up against them did not appear anxious to engage in combat. The two shot down crashed without their pilots having bailed out.
A senior Israeli Army officer questioned by newsmen today would not say whether the strike was an act of retaliation for the Arab terrorist attack on an El Al airliner at Zurich Airport last Tuesday. The terrorists admitted to Swiss police that they had come from Damascus. The officer said, “Zurich is Zurich and El Hamma is El Hamma.” It appeared more likely that the raid was a warning to Syria to desist from sending terrorists and saboteurs into Israeli territory. There have been about a dozen incidents along the Israel-Syria demarcation line in the Golan Heights in recent days.
The Israeli attack was launched at dawn when a minimum number of guards were on duty at the two camps. It coincided with the presence in Damascus of Yasir Arafat, commander of El Fatah and newly appointed head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, an umbrella group that is supposed to coordinate the activities of the various Palestinian terrorist bands. Some reports said Mr. Arafat was at El Hamma at the time. An Israeli spokesman said, “I hope he was.” Damascus Airport was shut down during the raid and for some time afterward. Amman Airport was closed briefly. Damascus radio claimed that 20 civilians were wounded in the attack and that a diplomatic automobile and two other cars were smashed.
Damascus radio claimed that heavy civilian casualties were suffered in the raid. It said at least 150 were dead, many of them hit while travelling on a highway near El Hamma. Another Damascus report said the Israeli jets scored a direct hit on a refrigerator factory employing 500 persons shortly after the morning shift reported for work.