yrian tanks, artillery and heavy machine guns pounded away on an Israeli armored column all morning today just below this Druze village high in the mountainous Chouf region, stopping the Israeli thrust northward to seize the strategic Beirut-Damascus highway.
Columns of brown and white smoke billowed up from the magnificent mountain landscape as shells exploded here and there, and the echoes of their thunderous booms rolled across the hills as the two forces slugged it out on a narrow, twisting road less than five miles south of the highway.
From the vantage point of Sharun, perched one hill away from the center of fighting, this reporter watched for several hours as the Israelis battled in vain to push past the Syrians blocking the road at the small village of Mesceti, within handgun range of Israeli positions at Ain Zhalta.
Lebanese leftists weighed in with mortar and artillery from positions behind Sharun, but their shells were falling one valley short in the hillside olive groves and vineyards of a neighboring village.
The multiple whoomph of Stalin organ rockets, Lebanese or Syrian, firing at the Israeli column could be heard off to the left. Israeli jet fighters made bombing runs on several occasions, apparently on Syrian artillery guns in the hills just above the Damascus road.
One could also hear the whir of helicopters in the distance, but it was impossible to tell at the time whose they were. Damascus radio said later that they were Syrian ones armed with rockets to knock out armor and claimed six Israeli tanks were destroyed by the helicopters plus five by Syrian groundfire.
It was a strange spectacle, like watching war games on a mock mountain battlefield with everything in miniature except the deafening noise. The final touch to the air of unreality came as our armed Druze hosts toward noon offered us tea or coffee as we sat watching the show from two half-built stone houses.
After a time, the wife of one appeared carrying a pot of Turkish coffee, which was served in Sunday-best porcelain teacups.
Shortly afterward, both sides stopped firing as if someone had mysteriously arranged a cease-fire. Later the Syrian position was bolstered by a dozen tanks, while the Israelis made no visible progress in pushing out of Ain Zhalta.
Finally low clouds put a damp clamp altogether on both the fighting and the viewing from Sharun. Later in the afternoon two reporters returned to the same spot only to find that three truckloads of Syrian troops and special forces had taken it over. The journalists were asked to leave, politely but firmly. Our Druze hosts of the morning had melted away into the village.
The road to Damascus, so important to both Lebanon and Syria, was equally a strange sight today. Early in the morning it was crowded with cars, trucks and buses filled with civilian Syrians fleeing Beirut singly or with their families and carrying bundles of clothes and sometimes their beds with them.
Many were trying to hitchhike, but some appeared resigned to walking the whole way or at least to Chtaura, the market town on the west side of the Bekaa Valley and a taxi stop. It was just one sign of Syrians' loss of confidence in their status and future in Beirut.
Last night, long columns of Syrian armored cars and trucks crawled over the Lebanon mountain range from Beirut, the beginning of a Syrian military pullback from the capital. Our hosts were abuzz with the news of the nighttime Syrian withdrawal as well as the failure of the forces of Walid Jumblatt, the leftist Druze leader, to protect the Chouf against the invading Israelis.
While the Syrians were leaving Beirut, however, it was clear they were not giving up the Bekaa Valley to the east or the battle to stop the Israeli armored column from reaching the Damascus highway.
By late afternoon, the road was filled with tanks, armor and infantry pouring into Lebanon from Syria. At the key road juncture at Mdeirij, which the Israelis at Ain Zhalta were trying to reach, seven Syrian tanks and various armored vehicles stood on guard, training their cannons down the narrow hillside road below.