War becomes a favorite game for Lebanese children

On the slopes of the Berduni River gorge that runs through the hillside town of Zahle, there is an amusement area of toy shops and sporting stalls and electronic games.

But the sound that echoes down to the alley's entrance is not amusing. The rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns, the whizzing shrill of rifles, the pop of pistols are unnerving in this city recently under seige.

It is the sound of children at war, the ''game'' that dominates their life and play.

On a Sunday afternoon long lines of children wait to play these games or touch the toys. They plead with parents to buy life-size plastic M-16 rifles that boast real sound and spark, or test the toy guns out by aiming at their peers in mock shootouts.

The war games in the amusement area reflect the preoccupations of a town under seige by Syrian forces just six months ago and still tense today - because of other ''war games'' in the surrounding Bekaa Valley plain.

Less than five miles away from the Christian enclave of 150,000 are real surface-to-air interceptors - nine batteries of Soviet SAM 6 missiles. Six months after they were deployed on Lebanese soil by the Syrians and six months after Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin pledged to eliminate them unless US peace negotiators won their removal, the missiles are still there.

A part of this war game is moving them around in an attempt to avoid detection by the Israelis. One battery, recently moved to the village of Angar, was interspersed near tent camps of the nomadic Bedouin and ruins of a 4th century BC Greek city.

The missiles themselves are heavily camouflaged on small hills or man-made mounds. But the fields nearby - where the Syrians have deployed supplementary Soviet S-60 and ZU-23 antiaircraft weaponry - are telltale indicators to Israeli spy planes.

Six months of the missile controversy show how easily a ''temporary'' crisis becomes permanent in this troubled country, and how the escalation process is tolerated as an almost expected part of the tragic game evolving in Lebanon.

This episode of the six-year-long civil strife began over a road link being built by the Christian militia of the Phalange to connect their northern stronghold with isolated Zahle, one of the largest Christian-controlled cities in the Middle East. The Syrians decided that was a provocation, since armored vehicles and other heavy weaponry might then reach Zahle, too close for comfort to the Syrian border.

So in April Syrian troops of the Arab Deterrent Force, Lebanon's peace-keepers, bombarded the former resort town to rid it of Christian militiamen.

And that, in turn, brought the Israelis, who strafed Syrian positions and shot down two Syrian helicopters - a move to ''help'' their Christian friends in the Bekaa.

The next day, the Syrians responded by deploying their missiles.

And now they are clearly there to stay. Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Mustafa Talas pledged Oct. 19 they will remain until Lebanon is ''liberated of all its internal and foreign foes. No power on earth will force us to go back on our decision and our missiles will stay in Lebanon as long as the Zionist aggression continues.''

General Talas' statement coincided with the arrival in Damascus of a US State Department official on an advance mission for US special envoy Philip C. Habib, who is expected to return to the Middle East next month to resume peace negotiations.

Diplomats in Beirut interpreted the Syrian declaration as in part directed at the United States - particularly the ''power on earth'' reference - and its so far unsuccessful effort to find terms to get the missiles out of the Bekaa.

This is one of the reasons diplomats and observers here hold out little hope for a voluntary withdrawal of the missiles at this stage. For, like the children at the amusement area, after six years of conflict in Lebanon the Syrians seem committed, even conditioned, to playing their games of war.

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