Naval task forces of the Soviet Union and the United States were reported to be patrolling inthe eastern Mediterranean off the coast of lebanon today as diplomatic efforts to ease the crisis over Syrian missiles deployed in Lebanon produced no agreement.
U.S. sources confirmed that the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal and the Soviet helicopter carrier Moskva, accompanied by supporting vessels, were in the eastern Mediterranean. The Soviet naval force, a U.S. source said, was "getting pretty heavy."
The proximity of the task forces appeared to represent a show of strength by both sides in the face of a growing likelihood that negotiations on the crisis would fail and Israel would conduct at least a limited military operation against Syria's missile batteries deployed in the Bekaa Valley east of Beirut.
State Department spokesman Dean Fischer said U.S. vessels are "maintaining a regular pattern of activity" in the Mediterranean, although he noted that the USS Independence had just arrived there from the Indian Ocean. A Pentagon official said this gives the United States its normal Mediterranean complement of two carriers for the first time in a year.
[The official said an additional amphibian assault ship with Marines and aircraft was also in the Mediterranean as part of a "long-planned training exercise."]
[Fischer said he had no information to confirm reports of the Soviet naval activity off Lebanon.Pentagon sources said there was no indication of a Soviet naval buildup in the Mediterranean, but they would not discuss reports of Soviet vessels off Lebanon or off Syria, which has close ties to the Soviet Union.]
Prime Minister Menachem Begin said he was aware of the reports of warship movements in the eastern Mediterranean, but, he said, "This is an international problem, not an Israeli problem."
Begin met for an hour today in the Israeli Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv with special U.S. envoy Philip C. Habib, who for a week has been shuttling between here and beirut and Damascus in an effort to reduce the threat of a military confrontation between Israel and Syria.
The U.S. Embassy tonight refused to comment on a report on Israeli radio that Habib will fly Saturday to Saudi Arabia in an attempt to keep the negotiaitons alive.
The Saudis, who have provided most of the financing for Syria's 30,000-man force in Lebanon, presumably would be asked by Habib to pressure Syrian President Hafez Assad to ease the crisis.
The situation began to worsen April 28, when Israeli jets shot down two Syrian helicopters that had been used in attacks on Christian militias in central Lebanon. Syria the next day deployed the first of five surface-to-air missile batteries on Lebanese soil.
Another nine missile batteries are located along the border just inside Syria, according to Israel.
After his meeting with Habib -- the second in 24 hours -- Begin said that Syria "objects utterly" to a return to the "status quo ante" which Begin considers to be a withdrawal of the missiles and a tacit understanding that Israeli aircraft will have freedom of movement in Lebanese skies for photo reconnaissance or to bomb Palestinian guerrilla positions.
"However, despite the great differences, we didn't give up [efforts] to find a peaceful solution," Begin told reporters.
He said the United States and Israel remain of the same opinion that the missiles should be withdrawn. Begin said no decision had been made on whether the two men will meet again, and both he and Habib refused to discuss the envoy's itinerary for the weekend.
Habib went to the house of U.S. Ambassador Samuel Lewis, but his aides would not say whether he will remain in Israel. They said Habib planned to consult with the State Department.
Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath, and Begin rarely conducts official business on that day.
Habib, who has been traveling steadily in the Middle East for a week, was said to be tired and in need of a rest.
Diplomatic sources said it was difficult to assess the presence of the Soviet naval task force in the vicinity of Lebanon since the Soviets often have warships in the Mediterranean.
The Soviet ship Moskva reportedly carries 18 helicopters equipped for antisubmarine warfare, along with missiles.
The Forrestal carries 75 fixed-wing warplanes. The Soviets have two other aircraft carriers in their fleet -- the Kiev and the Minsk.
State Department and Pentagon spokesmen said the USS Independence, which had been in the Indian Ocean, and two guided-missile escort vessels had joined the Forrestal in the Mediterranean after passing through the Suez Canal, which was recently dredged to accommodate larger vessels.
The U.S. commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization calls for two carriers in the Mediterranean, the Pentagon official said, but for the past year the United States has had an extra carrier in the Indian Ocean and only one in the Mediterranean.
The only U.S. vessel in the Mediterranean now that would not normally be there, the official said, is the USS Nassau, an amphibious assault ship, which carries Marine combat forces and Harrier vertical-takeoff warplanes. The Nassau, he said, is on a training exercise.