UNITED NATIONS (May. 21)
Exchanges of gunfire across the Suez Canal have been sharply reduced, according to a report of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) issued yesterday. The report, covering Monday’s fighting, showed a drop in the level of firing between Israeli and Egyptian forces from the 12-hour artillery duels common in March to sporadic mortar and anti-tank fire reported Monday by two UN observation posts. Usual machine gun and small arms fire continued along the canal. The report followed an appeal by UN Secretary General U Thant to Egypt on Friday, reportedly with Soviet and U.S. backing, to calm the situation. While previous reports stated Egypt started the exchanges, some recent reports indicated both sides had initiated firing.
UNTSO Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Odd Bull, is seeking assurances from Israel and Egypt of safety for the 90 UN observers in the 18 observation posts. The UN has nine posts on each side of the canal as well as a boat to rescue observers.
One reason for Egypt’s apparent de-escalation of its daily artillery barrages was an Israeli ultimatum to Egypt to demonstrate a sharp reduction in the firing it has initiated or, as Defense Minister Moshe Dayan said, “the Egyptians (will) force us to take the offensive.” Since Egyptian attacks along the Suez began, Israel has made two strikes against Egypt–Knocking out Egyptian radar installations in Jordan and a raid on power installations and a bridge along the upper Nile.
The Soviet Union, in a letter to U Thant dated May 8, said “it is necessary that the resolutions of the Security Council on the cease-fire should be strictly observed.” Observers saw this as Russian pressure on the Egyptians. Gen. Dayan warned in a speech May 12 “if the Egyptians continue with their warfare along the Suez Canal it is difficult to believe that we shall be able to maintain a purely defensive policy on our side.”
Gen. Bull, according to U.S. sources, wanted to warn Egypt personally to temper the fighting, but Mr. Thant instead decided to confer with Egyptian UN Ambassador Mohamed Awad H. el-Kony. At the meeting last Friday, Mr. Thant expressed to el-Kony his concern that, unless Egypt de-escalated the fighting, the military situation would get out of hand.