TEL AVIV (Aug. 25)
Three companies of American marines together with support troops, totalling 800 men, landed in the port of Beirut at dawn today to help supervise the evacuation of the PLO from west Beirut. They replaced the French troops in the port area who had arrived earlier in the week and who were today moved southwards to other crossing points between east and west Beirut.
The Americans arrived shortly after a sudden change in the evacuation plans was announced. Shortly before midnight yesterday it was announced without explanation that an evacuation of some 3,000 PLO fighters and Syrian troops via the Beirut-Damascus highway to Damascus had been cancelled and that the evacuees would instead leave Lebanon by sea, as have all the departing PLO men till now.
POSSIBLE REASONS FOR CHANGE IN PLAN
The decision to cancel the overland evacuation route was reportedly taken by the Syrian government in view of fears expressed by Syrian and PLO terrorists that they might be attacked by Christian Phalangist forces. Fighting had broken out yesterday in the highlands near Bhamdoun, about 12 miles east of Beirut. Lebanese security forces said the fighting was between Phalangist forces and leftists. Israel Radio reported that the fighting was between Christian and Syrian forces.
Another possible reason for the change of evacuation plans may have been the desire of the PLO to avoid television coverage of their expulsion under the watchful eyes of Israeli soldiers who still hold a section of the Beirut-Damascus highway.
The possibility of such a cancellation was clearly taken into prior consideration, as extra ships were suddenly available to take some 1,500 terrorist and Syrian troops away by sea — some 500 of them to South Yemen and others to ports in northern Syria.
Observers at the Beirut port saw a number of women and children among the terrorists boarding the ships. Some of the women were wearing PLO camouflage uniforms, even though one was also holding a baby. A number of children were also dressed in uniforms and PLO head-dress.
The last time U.S. marines landed in Lebanon was in 1958 when then Lebanese President Camille Chamoun appealed to the Eisenhower Administration for aid to help quell a rebellion against Chamoun’s pro-Western policies. The U.S. troops were withdrawn after a new government was formed in Lebanon.
Today’s arrivals carried M-16 rifles and grenade launchers, but their commander, Col. James Mead, stressed they had come to help maintain peace and did not intend to use their weapons except for dire necessity of self-defense.
(In Los Angeles, President Reagan said the U.S. marines who had landed in Beirut were there “on a mission of great importance to our nation and the free world.” Reagan’s statement, in a message sent to the marines and released by the White House in California, where he is on vacation, continued:
(“The conditions under which you carry out your vital assignments are, I know, demanding and potentially dangerous. You are asked to be once again what marines have been for more than 200 years — peacemakers. Your role in the multinational force, along with that of your French and Italian counterparts, is crucial to achieving the peace that is so desperately needed in this long-tortured city. I expect that you will perform with the traditional spirit and discipline for which the Marine Corps is renowned. Godspeed.”)
As the marines came ashore, some eight American warships, including a helicopter carrier, were anchored in Beirut bay not far from the part entrance.
SYRIANS REINFORCING POSITIONS IN BEKAO VALLEY
Meanwhile, as the PLO evacuation continues, albeit slower than scheduled, the Syrians are reported to be reinforcing their positions in the Bekao valley, digging new tank positions and heightening earthwork walls to conceal their gun positions.
PLO terrorists who have managed to slip out of west Beirut are reported to have joined other PLO groups active from behind the shield of Syrian positions on the eastern front.
In contrast to the Syrian buildup in Lebanon, observers report that the Syrian troops facing Israeli positions on the Golan Heights are demonstratively moving about in their underwear, in on evident sign of Syria’s non-warlike Intentions there.
Israel, meanwhile, has started releasing some of the PLO men taken prisoner and held in a camp in southern Lebanon. The prisoners there are not called prisoners of war as Israel claims that this is a term used for fighters representing official countries at war, whereas the PLO are terrorists not representing a recognized country.
Israeli officials stress that it is “pure coincidence” that these “administrative detainees” are being released almost simultaneously with the release by the PLO of two Israelis held prisoner and the return of the bodies of nine fallen Israeli soldiers.