Syrian antiaircraft batteries fired surface-to-air missiles at Israeli jets flying over central Lebanon today, Israel announced.
It was the first reported use of the SAMs since they became the center of a tense Middle East crisis.
The Army command said the Israeli warplanes, on a reconnaissance flight over the strategic Bekaa Valley, all returned to their bases and that the Syrian missiles exploded in mid-air. It did not say how many were fired.
A military spokesman in Damascus said Syrian forces "operating within the Arab Deterrent Force in Lebanon" shot down one Israeli plane "on a flight over the Bekaa area," without specifying how it was hit, Washington Post correspondent Stuart Auerbach reported from the Syrian capital.
An Associated Press reporter said that after hearing two explosions he saw two vapor trails rise toward the contrails of high-flying jets near Chtoura, on the highway leading into the Bekaa Valley, but that the vapor trails dropped from sight in the early-morning sky with no apparent result.
[In Washington, it was reported that the Reagan administration is concerned about reports Israel may send ground forces into southern Lebanon against Palestinians at the same time it uses warplanes against the missiles. Details on Page A18.]
The missiles were fired from inside Syria, close to the Lebanese border, Israeli military sources said. Prime Minister Menachem Begin said yesterday that Syria has redeployed 14 of the Soviet-made SAM batteries since the crisis began, five on Lebanese soil and nine hard against the border on Syrian soil.
U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib met with Begin and other top Israeli officials in Jerusalem today in an attempt to prevent the missile crisis from exploding into another Middle East war. He reportedly pressed for more time to find a compromise through shuttle diplomacy between Damascus and Jerusalem.
Habib was expected to return to Damascus on Wednesday for more meetings with Syrian officials to defuse the crisis, which began two weeks ago with the shooting down of two Syrian helicopters. Israel said the craft had been used in attacks on Israeli-supported Christian Lebanese forces in the Mt. Lebanon range overlooking the city of Zahle on the fringe of the Bekaa Valley. Following the downing of the helicopters, the Syrians deployed missiles batteries inside Lebanon, leading Begin to threaten to destroy them in a military action if they are not withdrawn.
Habib refused to talk with reporters today after his meetings with Begin and, earlier, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir; the Israeli Army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Rafael Eitan; and top-ranking Army intelligence officers. s
However, Israeli government sources said Begin and Shamir reiterated Israel's position that the presence of the missiles is intolerable and that while Israel is eager to resolve the crisis through diplomatic contact, "time is short."
Foreign Ministry sources also confirmed that a separate diplomatic effort was made by Dutch Foreign Minister Christoph van der Klaaw, chairman of the European Economic Community, who coincidentally was in Jerusalem for meetings with Begin and other Israeli officials.
Van der Klaaw, according to Israeli officials, conveyed a message to Shamir from Syrian President Hafez Assad dealing with the missile crisis. Begin confirmed that such a note had been delivered, but did not characterize its contents.
Begin continued to come under fire from his Labor Party opponents for disclosing in a parliament speech yesterday that three times on April 30 he had ordered the Israeli Air Force to bomb the missile sites, but that three times the missions were scrubbed because of unfavorable weather.
By revealing the exact date and times of the intended air strikes, Labor critics contended. Begin made it possible for the Syrians to analyze weather conditions at those times and, as a result, know under what conditions the Air Force can operate against missiles.
In a speech tonight to the Knesset, Begin rejected the opposition criticism of his handling of the missile crisis, saying all his decisions have been "well thought." He repeated Israel's resolve to attack the missiles if they are not removed.
Auerbach also reported from Damascus:
According to usually well informed diplomats here, the restrained and delayed reaction from Jerusalem was the first hopeful sign in what many had thought was an inexorable march toward an armed confrontation between Syria and Israel.
Even though the attack was reported to have taken place early this morning, there was no military response during the day from the Jewish state. Nor did Begin mention the attack during his Knesset speech. Moreover, the diplomats here pointed out, the official announcement from Israel seemed low-key and took pains to specify that the missiles came from within Syria.
While Syria was bellicose in its public statements, its report that it had shot down an Israeli plane was low-key and included no details or calls to action.
Continuing a series of hard editorials, the newspaper of the ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party, Al Baath, warned that any Israeli attack would not be met with a "strong and appropriate reply." The paper also stated matter-of-factly what has been said here to be the opinion of the government: Syria expects Israel to attack its missile batteries.
Washington Post correspondent Jonathan C. Randal reported from Beirut:
Against a background of unusual calm in the Lebanese capital, Beirut International Airport reopened after a three-week closure caused by Christian militia shelling.
Restoration of air service was arranged in four days of talks among the various fighting forces, particularly the Syrian Army and the Christian militias. Lebanese expressed relief at the reopening and also at a slackening in the indiscriminate shelling of residential areas that in recent days has killed at least 50 persons and wounded 300 others, mostly civilians. CAPTION: Map, no caption, By Dave Cook -- The Washington Post; Picture, Habib laughs as Begin turns letter face down on his knees. "I turned it over so they [photographers] can't read it," Begin said.