Eighty-seven Soviet Embassy dependents left Beirut today aboard a special flight to Moscow, setting off rumors in this jittery capital that the Russians were anticipating a Syrian-Israeli war in eastern Lebanon.
Observers close to the Soviet Embassy confirmed the departure of 39 women and 48 schoolchildren. State-run Beirut Radio quoted an embassy spokesman as saying the children were flown home for summer vacations, suggesting this was customary every year. "This move has absolutely no political significance," a Soviet diplomat told the Voice of Lebanon radio, organ of the Christian Phalangist Party.
In Moscow, the Soviet news agency Tass carried a statement claiming that Israel was preparing for war against Syria, The Associated Press reported. Such agency statements are considered only one step lower than a formal government declaration.
"It is no chance that the fuss over the conclusion of an American-Lebanese-Israeli agreement (on troop withdrawals) is being accompanied by the escalation of war preparations against Syria," Tass said.
"In other words, another war is being prepared while lip service is being paid to peace," it said.
In Washington, a State Department official called the Soviets' departure from Beirut "perfectly routine," adding, "We're not ascribing any particular significance to it at this time." The official said that dependents from many Soviet embassies were normally sent home for the summer about this time and that Moscow already had asked permission to send a ship to Baltimore to bring home the women and children of its Washington-based diplomats.
Soviet Embassy dependents have been sent home from Beirut for the summer in past years, usually about the time of the annual rise in violence here. Last year, Soviet children and their mothers hurriedly left Lebanon at the beginning of June, just before the Israeli invasion.
This year, their departure appeared unusually early. The term at the special Soviet Embassy school is never over before the end of May, one observer noted. Soviet diplomats told United Press International that the dependents were sent home because of the danger from shelling between Lebanese militias in the mountains outside Beirut.
Airport officials said the Soviet dependents left on a specially arranged flight. There are regular flights to Moscow every Wednesday.
The Voice of Lebanon said Moscow also had ordered its dependents home from Damascus and Amman. In the Jordanian capital, news agencies said Soviet diplomats denied the report. There was no immediate Soviet reaction in Syria.