Fifteen-hundred armed Palestinian soldiers this morning nervously rolled out of besieged Moslem West Beirut in a convoy escorted by Italian soldiers, passed their partially hidden enemies--Israeli soldiers and Lebanese Christian militiamen--and arrived safely in Syria.
Until they were behind Syrian Army lines east of the Lebanese town of Sofar, about 15 miles from Beirut, the soldiers of the Syrian-commanded Palestine Liberation Army were tense, even when cheered by civilians, said PLA soldier Mohammed Chanaim.
"We were ready for anything," explained Chanaim, 20. "We did not know what to expect."
In the Druze Moslem village of Sofar, no tears were shed over the departure of the Palestinians.
The town, perched on the side of a mountain, is where spheres of influence divide in this bisected nation since the Israeli invasion began in June.
Saadin Labban, the patriarch of an extended family of 16, was out in front of his vacation complex of three homes before 6 a.m. to watch the departure. The convoy of more than 200 vehicles did not grind up the mountain until three hours later.
"I got up very early to see them leave," Labban said. "I am very happy, but in a way I am not happy. We suffered a lot at the hands of the Palestinians but they suffered also."
The Labban family is Moslem and, although they do not like the Palestine Liberation Organization, they say the Palestinians must have a home or there will never be peace in Lebanon.
Labban complained that the PLO unleashed youths with weapons. With weapons, he said, "they don't respect people."
With the PLO and Syrians beginning to leave, the next question for the family was who will make the Israelis leave. None had an answer except a hope that the United States would get the Israelis to withdraw.
Tiring of hearing the problems of his country, Labban just shot out, "We don't want any foreigners here."
By the time the two-mile-long military convoy descended to Shtawrah, the first town on the Bekaa Valley floor nine miles east of Sofar, the PLA soldiers were noisily celebrating their escape from Beirut by emptying clip after clip of their Soviet-made AK47 automatic assault rifles into the air.
The noise became deafening when hundreds of PLO guerrillas, forming an honor guard along the 12-mile route from Shtawrah to the Syrian border, responded with automatic rifle fire, antiaircraft gunfire and mortar rounds.
The convoy was the first overland evacuation of Palestinian fighters from Beirut into Syria after two days of postponements caused by fighting Tuesday on the first part of the evacuation route. The Israelis said the fighting was between Christian militias and Lebanese leftist Moslem militias, but the Christian's Phalangist radio countered that the fighting had been between Israelis and Syrians.
Regardless, the Palestinian fighters became reluctant to leave by land, Chanaim said. Instead, 600 PLO guerrillas left Beirut by boat Wednesday and arrived in the Syrian port of Tartus early yesterday.
Today, the firing became so intense when the lead cars of the convoy entered Shtawrah's main intersection shortly before 11 a.m. that the two-lane road was covered with ejected cartridge shells.
It was part of the daily celebration designed to convince the troops that this Israeli-forced withdrawal from Lebanon is really a victory.
One of the honor guard, Mohammed Refai, 50, sharing a large bag of sweet apples with others under a tree, said he was very pleased with the withdrawal. A man who laughs often and talks at a rapid-fire pace, Refai said he first began to fight the Israelis in 1952 as a member of the National Arab Movement. He is now a member of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by George Habash, Refai said.
"All of these men will now live to fight another day," he laughed before the convoy arrived.
Refai's Arabic-English interpreter was also a PFLP guerrilla, 22-year-old Rasan Aswad. "I am a second-generation guerrilla after this man," he said. "There is another generation behind me."
PLO leader Yasser Arafat's portrait was pasted everywhere, the caption under the picture reading, "In Beirut, you've been the symbol of steadfastness." The term "steadfastness" is used in the Arab world to refer to those who maintain an uncompromising posture of war with Israel.
Thousands of civilians met the convoy at 12:15 p.m. (6:15 a.m. EDT) at the Syrian border. There were the familiar scenes of family and friends, uncertain if the soldier they were looking for had been killed in Beirut, who cried and kissed each other when the sought-for trooper was found. The young women were there also, some with babies in their arms or children waving PLO flags, anxiously searching the faces in each vehicle.
Syrian soldiers in rumpled gray uniforms left their positions in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains separating Syria and Lebanon to run down to the roadside and give the "V"-for- victory sign when the convoy passed. They have been reinforcing their positions along the border and in the Bekaa Valley in preparation for a possible confrontation with the Israeli Army.
When the convoy reached the broad highway on the Damascus Plain, the vehicles spread out to take over all four lanes, forcing oncoming traffic into single file on the road's shoulder. After 12 more miles, Syrian motorcycle policemen turned the convoy onto a single dirt road headed south to the Palestinian refugee camp outside the town of Qatana.
At the Qatana camp, 56 miles from Beirut, thousands of Palestinian civilians greeted the convoy at its last stop at 2:30 p.m..
Several PLA soldiers angrily declined to talk to a reporter through an interpreter. One shouted he would not have anything to say to anyone who worked for an organization "with the name Washington" in it, explained a PLO interpreter.
"Washington is where they make the bombs the Israelis dropped on us in Beirut," the interpreter quoted the soldier as saying.
Washington Post correspondent Jay Ross contributed to this report.