TEL AVIV (Sep. 24)
An Israeli military spokesman said today that the Israel Air Force shot down four Syrian MIG-21s in an aerial dogfight that developed over Lebanon south of Beirut this afternoon. He said all Israeli aircraft returned safely to their bases. According to the spokesman, the Israeli planes were on a search mission for terrorist bases when the encounter took place at about 2:40 p.m. local time.
(Media sources in Beirut confirmed late today that four Syrian MIGs had been shot down. Two crashed in the hills south of Beirut and two others come down near a village, also south of the Lebanese capital.)
An army spokesman said that some of the Israeli planes involved in the aerial battle were American-made F-15 jets. The use of American-made planes in Israel’s strikes in south Lebanon has been criticized by the Carter Administration. The stress placed by the spokesman on the use of F-15s today appeared to sustain the denial by Defense Minister Ezer Weizman that he had committed Israel to get U. S. consent on using U. S. weapons in anti-terrorist raids. It had been reported here that Weizman had made such a commitment in talks with American Congressman during his visit to Washington last week.
Today’s dogfight was the second such clash since June when Israeli fighters downed five Syrian MIGs that attempted to interfere with an aerial mission over Lebanon. It was disclosed, meanwhile, that Syrian interceptors fired air-to-air missiles at Israeli planes over Lebanon last week but scored no hits and no combat ensued.
SEE SYRIA ESCALATING TENSIONS
Israeli military circles expressed concern today that the Syrians are attempting to escalate tension in Lebanon in the air and on the ground on the eve of President Hafez Assad’s visit to Lebanon. The Syrians were blamed for initiating today’s clash and for falsely alleging that a large-scale Israeli military operation was underway in south Lebanon over the weekend. The army denied this, pointing out that Israeli soldiers were either observing the Rosh Hashanah holiday or were engaged only in essential patrol or guard duties.
According to Israeli sources, the fighting that erupted in south Lebanon was initiated by Palestinian terrorists who attacked Christian villages. The Christian militia, commanded by Maj Sood Haddad, repulsed the attacks and in one instance launched a counter-attack in an attempt to root the terrorists out of their positions near Khardaleh Bridge on the Litoni River.
Haddad reported that terrorists attacked a number of villages, notably Klea and Beit Yahoun, with mortars, bazookas and small arms. The Christians replied with artillery fire. Haddad said his forces would observe the cease-fire if the Palestinians did. Meanwhile, he lodged a strong protest with Gen. Emanuel Erskine, commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) against repeated violations by the Palestinians of the cease-fire agreement reached last Aug. 28.
(The United States took a cautious and noncommittal position on the dogfight over Lebanon. State Department spokesman Tom Reston described the air clash as a dangerous development after Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York, departed briefly from his prepared text to say that “the fragility” of the ceasefire in southern Lebanon “is underscored by the events of today.” Reston said the U. S. was in touch with the people of the region to determine how the clash arose, while urging all parties to exercise maximum restraint.)