TEL AVIV (Mar. 9)
Israeli and Egyptian heavy artillery dueled across the Suez Canal for the second consecutive day in what was described as the worst flare-up along the 70-mile waterway since Oct. 27. One Israeli soldier died of wounds, two were injured and seven slightly injured in yesterday’s shelling. Today’s Israeli casualties were 14 soldiers wounded, two seriously.
Heavy smoke and flames were seen rising from the Egyptian oil refineries near Suez at the southern end of the canal yesterday although an Israeli spokesman said the oil tanks were not a target but were apparently hit by chance. Three more oil tanks were set ablaze in today’s artillery barrage. Yesterday and today, according to an Israeli spokesman, Israeli forces attempted to observe cease-fire calls by United Nations observers but were forced to resume shooting when the Egyptian forces failed to respond.
(In Washington, a State Department spokesman said today that the United States had no special response to the latest artillery exchanges across the Suez. But he said that as in past exchanges, the U.S. was concerned about any breach of the UN cease-fire agreement. The spokesman said the fighting made the achievement of peace more difficult, but he noted that the U.S. Government saw the latest development as just another breach of the cease-fire.)
The situation was discussed at today’s Cabinet meeting. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said earlier that the artillery duel was premeditated and initiated by the Egyptian high command to attempt to create the impression that the entire region was on the verge of a new outbreak of war. It was timed, he said, to coincide with Foreign Minister Abba Eban’s departure for Washington to confer with President Richard M. Nixon and was apparently Cairo’s intention to prompt President Nixon to take action to force an Israeli withdrawal from the Canal as a means of averting a new all-out war. Israelis also believed the Egyptians were addressing themselves to the Big Four who were conferring at the UN on a Mideast settlement.
Today’s three hour and 25 minute clash began with Egyptian machinegun fire aimed at Israeli positions near the southern end of the canal, a military spokesman said. When Israeli units returned the fire in Kind, the Egyptians opened up with artillery along the canal’s entire length. Israeli artillery returned the fire. Israeli spokesmen said the UN observers called for a cease-fire at 4:45 p.m. local time and again at 6 p.m. Israeli gunners complied in both instances but resumed firing when the Egyptians ignored the order. The shelling reportedly ended at 7 p.m. local time.
FIRING BEGAN SATURDAY; ISRAEL DOWNED EGYPTIAN MIG-21
Today’s events duplicated those of yesterday when Egyptian artillery opened up at 5:30 p.m. local time along the whole canal front from Kantara in the north to Suez in the south. The attack was preceded five hours earlier by an aerial dogfight ever Israel-held territory in which Israeli jets shot down one Egyptian MIG-21 and drove off three other intruding MIGs. The plane burst into flames. Its pilot, who bailed out over Israeli territory, was identified as Lt. Mouhamed Abdul Bakhi, 21. An Israeli spokesman said he was rushed to a hospital by helicopter where attempts were being made to save his life. Egyptian sources admitted that one MIG was shot down but claimed to have shot down one Israeli plane. Israeli sources said all planes returned safely to their bases.
The Egyptian MIGs were apparently on a photo-reconnaissance mission prior to the artillery barrage. The artillery attack, which was described as a massive barrage of the kind favored by the Russians, erupted simultaneously from Kantara at the canal’s northern entrance to Suez in the south. Cairo claimed that Israel began the attack near Ismailia and the shooting then spread over the entire front. An Israeli spokesman said a cease-fire was called for 7:45 p.m. local time by UN observers and Israeli forces observed it. He said the Egyptians in the northern sector stopped shooting but enemy artillery along a 15-mile front on the southern flank kept up the fire. The Israelis said they resumed shelling at 8:05 p.m. but suspended fire 20 minutes later in response to another UN cease-fire call. When the Egyptians failed to do likewise the engagement was resumed at 9:05 p.m. and lasted until 10:40 p.m. when the shelling subsided on both sides. Cairo claimed that it was the Israelis who failed to obey UN cease-fire orders. The Israeli timing for the cease-fire requests did not coincide with those broadcast by Cairo Radio.
Thousands of dollars worth of fuel were reported burning today at the Suez and Nasr refineries outside Suez City. It was also reported that the town of Ismailia suffered heavy damage. Almost all of its residents had been evacuated.
The fight along the Canal followed two weeks of continuous sniping by Egyptians in which at least nine Israeli soldiers were hit. Lt. Gen. Odd Bull, chief of the UN cease-fire observation corps, has reported to Secretary-General U Thant that the sniping was initiated by the Egyptians in most cases. Mr. Thant warned last week that it could lead to a major outbreak of fighting along the Suez front. Israel’s Defense Minister, Gen. Moshe Dayan, warned the Egyptians several times. In a radio interview broadcast by Kol Israel yesterday, Gen. Dayan said, “We are not as weak along the Suez Canal as the Egyptians believe and we have the capacity to hit back hard and painfully…If the Egyptians do not want to observe the cease-fire and they continue to snipe, they will get back what they need to open their eyes.”
Last October an eight hour artillery duel along the Suez cost Israel 15 dead and 35 wounded. Four days later Israeli commandos penetrated deep into Egypt to blow up a transformer and two bridges. The reprisal was followed by a period of quiet until the sniping incidents escalated last month.
(Both Israel and Egypt submitted letters to the UN Security Council charging breaches of the ceasefire.)