Search for men lost at the end of the world: When the Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1982 three of their soldiers disappeared. Now the Americans are trying to find them. Robert Fisk joined the hunt in Aita al-Fauqar

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THE tank revetments are overgrown, the bomb craters sprouting trees, but still visible is the stretch of cracked roadway where Sergeants Baumel and Feldman and Corporal Katz disappeared almost 12 years ago. Local memory is still sharp, too, although most of the Lebanese villagers were hiding from Israeli shellfire when the three Israelis went missing in a battle one woman described as 'the end of the world'.

Whether it was the end of the world for Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz is a question occupying the minds of three US Congress members whose visit to the old battlefield in the lower Bekaa valley was sanctioned by President Assad of Syria in the days before Sunday's summit with President Clinton. US-Syrian relations, therefore, also have a small investment in the memories - and perhaps in the graves - of the cold and wind-swept villages around Aita al-Fauqar.

The facts of the battle are not in dispute. On the night of 11 June 1982, five days into Israel's invasion of Lebanon, a column of Israeli tanks tried to break north up the Bekaa valley and cut the Syrian army's supply lines to Beirut. But the invasion force - firing at both Syrian artillery and villages in which Palestinian guerrillas were hiding - drove into a trap. Syrian troops and Palestinian fighters attacked the tanks on foot with rocket-propelled grenades, setting fire to the Israeli armour and inflicting the first defeat the Israelis were to suffer in an invasion that was to cost 17,500 Lebanese and Palestinian lives, mainly civilians. Baumel, Feldman and Katz were forced to run from their burning tank and - according to an Israeli report - were later seen standing beside the road waiting for help.

They were never seen again, at least not by their comrades. As deaf old Elias Abu Odeideh, the mayor of Aita al-Fauqar, told the Americans, most of the villagers were so terrified of the Israeli bombardment that they hid in their cellars. 'It rained shells on to our homes,' he said yesterday. 'We thought we would die. How could we know what was happening outside? The Palestinians were in our village - they were Fatah men from Yasser Arafat's PLO - but the Israelis never reached Aita al-Fauqar. They were stopped. But the Palestinians retreated.'

And here Mr Odeideh raised his index finger. 'You know, the Palestinians told us something the next day as they passed through here. None of us villagers were witness to this, but the Palestinians said they took three people with them - three Israelis.' Mr Odeideh used the Arabic words telet ashkhaz, which translate literally as 'three people'; but when asked if the Palestinians had said whether they were dead or alive, the mayor used the word juthat - 'bodies'.

Which might be why the American congressional team paid a visit to the little Christian cemetery at Aita al-Fauqar, taking photographs of the graves but not - as Lebanese reporters later claimed - opening the tombs. Yet if the Palestinians 'passed through' Aita al-Fauqar, they would have taken the road away from the cemetery, a tiny lane that runs high into the hills to the east, past ruined Roman temples.

I drove it yesterday, behind the Maysaloon pass and up a back road that led directly across the border, into Syria. So was this where those Palestinians tried to take prisoners - dead or alive - more than a decade ago? In Damascus, the Syrians say privately that in the heat of the 1982 battle they had no idea of the individual fates of their Israeli enemies. As the village mathematics teacher at Sultan Yacoub, on the other side of the valley from Aita al- Fauqar, pointed out: 'There were many, many dead on all sides. There were piles of dead Syrian soldiers and many Israelis. The battle was a bloodbath.'

Nor, it should be added, are the villagers of the lower Bekaa particularly sympathetic towards the Israelis. In the street, a young man - a schoolboy at the time - said angrily: 'The Israelis stormed into Lebanon and killed many, many people. They shelled our villages. And then the Americans turn up and ask us to help them find Israel's missing soldiers for them. What about us?'

Refusing to offer their own assistance to the US Congress team, the Hizbollah militia - which may be holding Ron Arad, an Israeli air force navigator captured when his plane was shot down during an air raid on Sidon in 1986 - asked why the same American Congress members did not try to find up to 50 Lebanese held prisoner against international law inside Israel.

More interesting would be to know if Mr Arafat has tried to discover the whereabouts of the guerrillas - and they were his Fatah men - who hid in Aita al-Fauqar in 1982. He might at least ask them if they can clarify Mr Odeideh's strange recollection. Of course, the Palestinians may be long dead; in which case, the only man to gain from the inquiries - in the eyes of both the Americans and the Israelis - will be the Syrian President who held Bill Clinton so warmly by the hand in Geneva on Sunday.