Cheering Israeli soldiers handed over their control of one-third of the west bank of the Suez Canal today to United Nations forces, lifting the siege of Suez City and freeing the encircled Egyptian 3rd Army in the Sinai.
A force of 600 U.N. troops in blue helmets and armed only with black Finnish Valmett automatic rifles immediately moved into the vacated positions. Egyptian forces will take over at 6 p.m. (noon EDT), Finnish Col. Reino K. Raitasaari, commander of UN forces in the area, said.
UPI Correspondent Richard C. Gross reported from Suez City that wisps of black smoke curled into the blue sky from dozens of locations as the Israelis burned what they could not take with them. The withdrawing Israelis previously blew up Egyptian missile sites.
The chief of staff, Lt. Gen. David Elazar, denied earlier that Israeli was bound by the Suez front disengagement agreement to leave Egyptian military installations untouched, although he said civilian property would not be damaged.
Israel and Syria, which have yet to agree to separate their forces, reported tank and artillery battles along the tense Golan Heights truce lines. Israel reported no casualties, but Syria said 40 Israelis were killed or wounded.
Military sources in Tel Aviv said the Israeli withdrawal would be followed later in the day by a thinning out of Egyptian forces along the East Bank of the 102-mile-long waterway.
Israeli halftracks, armored personnel carriers, jeeps, trucks and buses all crowded with helmeted Israelis jammed the Cairo-Suez road in the first military withdrawal carried out by the Jewish state since it surrendered the Sinai in 1957.
The UN forces formally took control of the highway at midday following a dawn transfer of the Gulf of Suez port of Adabiya, Israel's southernmost point of occupation. The Israelis also handed over their cease-fire line position at Kilometer 101 of the highway.
Raitasaari said the new Israeli defense line, until their next pullback in February, runs about 3 miles northward, parallel to the highway.
"We held a short parade formation in the presence of the Swedish U.N. troops who were rather curious about it, as well as our friends, the Egyptians on the other side," said Lt. Col. David, commander of the Israeli truce line post.
"Then we pulled the flag down, folded it up and, with a last salute, we said a nice goodbye and packed up," he told a radio interviewer.
The abandoned piece of land, deep in the heart of Egypt, made up about one-third of a 560-square-mile bulge along the West Bank seized by Israel in a thrust across the canal during the final days of the 1973 Middle East war.
Israel was to hand over the land to U.N. forces this morning, with Egyptian units expected to move in at night, ending the first stage of the 40-day pullback worked out by Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger.
The vital Cairo-Suez highway, which runs from the Egyptian capital to the southern canal city, was to be turned over to U.N. troops at noon in a formal ceremony at the Kilometer 101 desert outpost along the road.
Kissinger said he was "moderately optimistic" Israel and Syria would reach a troop pullback agreement, ending the sporadic clashes along the northern front.
"We are working on that," Kissinger told a news conference. "We're trying to get something started."
Sources in Tel Aviv said troops of Egypt's 3rd Army were the first to thin out, moving from the eastern to western side of the waterway.
Israeli troops encircled the 3rd Army during the final days of last October's 17-day war, but have permitted supply shipments to the surrounded Egyptians since the Oct. 24 cease-fire.
Israel's national radio said the bulk of Israeli troops and weapons had been withdrawn Sunday from the area between the highway and the port of Adabiya, nine miles to the south.
The pullback, which began last Friday, was scheduled to wind up March 5, with Egyptian forces in control of both banks of the waterway, closed since the six-day, 1967 Middle East War.
In return for the Israeli pullback into the Sinai Desert 13 miles east of the waterway, Egypt was to thin its forces along the canal's east bank and pull all surface-to-air missiles out of the desert.