A free-for-all week of terror

Jared Mitchell June 24 1985

A free-for-all week of terror

Jared Mitchell June 24 1985

A free-for-all week of terror


Jared Mitchell

Ordinarily, Trans World Airlines Flight 847 is a short two-hour connector run between Athens and Rome. Indeed, last Friday’s flight began as usual, with the plane’s eight crew members greeting their 145 passengers for the pleasant two-hour crossing over the blue Mediterranean. Then, shortly after the Boeing 727 lifted off the runway at Athens International Airport, gunmen carrying 9 mm pistols and Mills hand grenades stormed the cockpit, threatening to blow up the aircraft. They forced the pilot to fly to Beirut International Airport. With that, Flight 847 began a frightening odyssey around the Middle East—twice to Beirut, twice to Algiers and then a third time back to Beirut—where the aircraft remained late Sunday.

As the crisis deepened, the hijackers demanded the release of Arab prisoners in Israeli jails, threatening to kill the passengers. At one point, a man was shot dead and his body thrown onto the tarmac during a stopover in Beirut. The hijackers reportedly killed him when a Lebanese militia officer refused to negotiate with them. But by Sunday after-

noon in Beirut, the pirates had freed all but 40 passengers and reduced their demands to the release of 50 of their comrades from an isolated Israeli prison camp. In addition, they demanded more fuel for the jet, which by then had flown 6,000 miles in a 60-hour period. Then, late Sunday the hijackers pledged to continue negotiating and not to kill any more passengers. Still, U.S. officials expressed concern for about 12 missing passengers, removed during one of the Beirut stops because they had, according to a TWA spokesman, “Jewish-sounding names.”

At the same time, security planners expressed growing concern that Middle East terror may now spread far beyond the region’s borders. Their fears were grounded in a free-for-all week of terrorism that included a major car bomb explosion in Beirut, heavy combat throughout the city and two other hijackings in the area. Adding to analysts’ concerns was the fact that an anonymous telephone caller informed a Beirut news agency that members of the mysterious, deadly pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad movement had carried out the weekend hijacking. The organization has claimed responsibility for the deaths of 304 Americans in suicide

bombings at U.S. installations in embattled Beirut as well as numerous kidnappings.

The drama began when at least two alleged terrorists, later identified as Ahmedk Karbeia and Ali Yunes, both 20-year-old Shi’ites from southern Lebanon, slipped past two Greek airport security X-ray checks and a metal detector with their weapons reportedly swaddled inside opaque fibre glass insulation. Shortly after the plane began climbing out of Athens and the pilot, Capt. John L. Testrake, had switched off the “fasten seat belts” sign, they stormed the cockpit. Passengers who were released in Beirut on Friday later recounted that the two men acted like children playing in the aisles. Throughout the ordeal some passengers were beaten, and one was slightly wounded in the neck by gunfire. Freed hostages also reported seeing two young men writhing in pain in the jet’s forward cabin. One had a bloody mask pulled over his face.

During the first trip to Beirut, air traffic controllers there first refused to let the three-engine jet land until pilot Testrake radioed a shocking description of a terrorist next him in the cramped cockpit. “He has pulled a hand-grenade pin and is ready to blow up the aircraft if

he has to,” Testrake said, his voice tense but calm. “We must land at Beirut. No alternative.”

Once on the ground, the hijackers released 17 women, most of them elderly, and two children, who slid down inflatable emergency exit ramps during the 90-minute refuelling stop. At that point, officials said, at least 10 more terrorists joined the flight in Beirut and then ordered the weary crew to fly 1,860 miles west to the Algerian capital. After returning to Beirut late Friday night they demanded that representatives of the Shi’ite Amal militia negotiate with them. When an Amal officer refused to go aboard the aircraft, the pilot radioed the tower: “They have shot a man.” A terrorist broke into the transmission and shouted: “If no one comes, we will shoot another and another.” At first, the dead man, whose body was removed by Red Cross officials, was thought to be a U.S.

Marine but by Sunday the U.S. state department had still been unable to identify the victim. And there were reports that another male passenger may have died from repeated beatings.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, the terrorists decided to force the second flight to

Algiers. There, they began tense negotiations with Algerian officials. The hijackers issued a forbidding list of demands: the release of 700 Moslem prisoners in Israeli jails; international condemnation of the Israeli armed forces’ behavior in southern Lebanon before the troops’ recent withdrawal; similar criticism of U.S. support for Israel and of a March 8 Beirut car bombing which killed 80 people and which some Moslems allege was carried out by a group trained by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Finally, they demanded an end to four weeks of fierce fighting between Lebanese Shi’ites and

Palestinians in refugee camps on Beirut’s southern edge as well as continuing clashes between Shi’ites and Druze militiamen. In a statement the hijackers said, “We have come out to be martyred, and to return without the implementation of our demands would be a dishonor to us.”

Israeli and American leaders consulted feverishly throughout the weekend on whether to give in to the air pirates’ demands. President Ronald Reagan cut short a weekend retreat at Camp David to attend a special meeting of the National Security Council, and the Israeli cabinet met in emergency session.

The 50 ^hi’ite prisoners, whose freedom the hijackers were demanding, had been captured for alleged terrorist activities in southern Lebanon during Israel’s occupation of the region, which ended on June 6. The prisoners have only recently been transferred to Israeli territory from a detention camp at Ansar in southern Lebanon. At the same time, Jerusalem has been steadily repatriating them; another 500 have already returned to Lebanon. On Sunday there were reports that Israel had ordered a local bus company to stand by with charter coaches in the region where the detainees are being held.

Although Israel had been intending to routinely release the prisoners, the terrorists’ demands sparked a bitter debate over prisoner exchanges. A similar prisoner exchange carried out last month created an angry controversy among Israelis, and critics charged that Israel was suffering from psychological enfeeblement. At the time, Jerusalem exchanged 1,150 Palestinian and other guerrillas, many of them convicted murderers, for three Israeli soldiers who were being held captive by Syrianbacked Palestinians. Opponents of the accord said that it would only encourage terrorists to capture more hostages for trades with the West, and some observers said that last week’s hijacking proved that their concerns were wellfounded. Acknowledged Israeli Ambassador to the United States Benyamin Netanyahu: “Any surrender invites further terror and mounting blackmail.”

On Saturday, Greek officials acceded to one of the terrorists’ demands when they released one suspected co-conspirator who they had detained in Athens. The alleged terrorist, a 21-year-old southern Lebanese air-conditioning technician named Ali Atoua Tourenda, had been caught when TWA officials in Athens denied him a seat on the flight because it was already full. Greek authorities took him into custody 12 hours later in Athens, where he confessed to the hijacking. Greek security officials sent Atoua aboard a special Olympic Airways flight to Algiers. The hijackers then released more than 50 passengers,

including popular Greek singer Demis Roussos, who had observed his 40th birthday while on board. Still, Atoua’s handover sparked immediate fury in the Greek press. Commented the opposition newspaper, Vradyni: “Violence was allowed to win.”

At the same time, there was a growing outcry over Greek airport security measures. The Athens airport is notorious for allowing hijackers to board civilian aircraft. In one famous incident, terrorists made their way onto an Air France plane in 1976. The incident ended in Entebbe, Uganda, when Israeli commandos attacked the airport, killed the hijackers and secured the passengers’ release. And last April a man launched a shoulder-fired rocket at a Jordanian jet from the airport’s perimeter fence as the aircraft was preparing to take off. The missile struck the aircraft but failed to explode. Observed Paul Wilkinson, a terrorism expert at Scotland’s Aberdeen University: “One does expect by now that major European airports should be up to the standards of the very best security in the business. They are still lax. Athens is one of those airports that needs to tighten up considerably.”

In Beirut hijackings have become even more commonplace. During their two stops in Beirut the crew of Flight 847 passed by grim proof of that trend. Within sight of the runway lay the charred tail of a Royal Jordanian Airlines (ALIA) Boeing 727, all that remained of another jet hijacked last week. In that incident, five Shi’ite gunmen seized the aircraft and more than 60 passengers on the tarmac of Beirut airport. The hijackers also demanded that Palestinians abandon the Beirut camps. The 28-hour ordeal ended in Beirut with the safe release of passengers, although the plane never took off. However, shortly before disappearing into the labrynthine shantytowns that surround the X-shaped airport, the terrorists sprayed the red-and-white Boeing with machine-gun fire and detonated a bomb in the cockpit. The ensuing fire destroyed the aircraft. The airport has become the focus for numerous hijackings this year. Hours after pirates destroyed the ALIA airliner, a lone Palestinian gunman briefly seized a Lebanese-based Middle East Airlines Boeing 707 en route from Beirut to Cyprus to protest the first hijacking. In one bizarre incident last winter, a customs official who works at Beirut International Airport seized another MEA plane. A quick-thinking cabin attendant evacuated passengers down the emergency exit chutes before takeoff but the hijacker demanded the plane fly to Cyprus with its doors open, the inflated chutes dragging behind. His demands: a pay increase for customs officials and new winter coats for airport employees

forced to work in the drafty, bulletpocked terminal.

Last week’s terror spread well beyond the hijackings. In a seaside neighborhood of West Beirut, a white BMW automobile, packed with 550 lb. of dynamite, detonated outside a building held by the predominantly Shi’ite Sixth Brigade of the regular Lebanese Army. The blast killed 23 people and wounded 36 more. Then an anonymous caller told a Beirut Christian radio station that the two suicide bombers who drove the BMW were Sunni Moslems, with whom Shi’ite factions are battling for control of Moslem West Beirut. In another incident a mortar shell slammed into a crowded open-air vegetable market on the Moslem side of the Green Line, which di-

vides East and West Beirut, killing five and wounding 45.

Because of the rapidly spreading anarchy in Lebanon, Ottawa decided last week to close indefinitely the Canadian Embassy in Beirut. Although the mission’s 14 remaining employees had braved one of the most dangerous diplomatic assignments in the world, their increasing vulnerability convinced government officials to order them to withdraw. In recent months the embassy, located in the Sabbagh Building on the once-fashionable rue Hamra, has been the target of sniper fire. At the same time, all Westerners in Lebanon have become the focus of kidnappers. Last week Prof. Thomas M. Sutherland, dean of agriculture at the American University in Beirut, became the 17th foreigner to vanish into the custody of shadowy gunmen so far this year. Declared Ex-

ternal Affairs Minister Joe Clark: “The situation is so precarious that it is prudent for us to withdraw.” As a result, the embassy’s staff drove through the perilous Beka’a Valley last week, first to Damascus, then to the Jordanian capital of Amman on Saturday, where the legation has temporarily shifted operations. Shortly after arriving, first secretary Scott Mullin told Maclean's: “Security has deteriorated for a long time. Many of us are sad to be leaving Beirut.” Alleviating the relentless unfolding of terrorism was the release of 21 Finnish soldiers belonging to the United Nations peacekeeping force stationed in southern Lebanon. The Finns had been held captive by the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army. The Shi’ite SLA had cap-

tured the UN troops June 7, demanding the return of 11 of its members who apparently defected to the Shi’ite Amal militia. At first, SLA leaders charged that the Finns had handed the 11 soldiers over to a rival militia, but when it became clear that they had voluntarily switched allegiances the Finns were released. Said Col. Kari Kottila, chief of staff for the UN Interim Force in Lebanon of the the freed captives: “They are in good condition, only bored.” Still, the issue proved to be an embarrassment for Israel, which equips, trains and pays the SLA force in Lebanon. Observers said that the incident had badly strained Jerusalem’s fragile relations with the UN peacekeeping forces.

Throughout the week a special U.S. task force monitored the hijacking from a seventh-floor complex inside the state department in Washington, the same

offices used during the Iranian hostage crisis. But while U.S. officials stayed in close contact with the Algerians and Israelis during the crisis, there was a sense of frustration pervading Washington. Indeed, as analysts began to assess the expanding scale of terrorism in the region, many of them concluded that Western organizations are poorly equipped to respond effectively to random attacks. There were reports that Washington had ordered the secret dispatch of a crack anti-terrorist squad known as the Deltas from Fort Bragg, N.C., to the Middle East. However, U.S. officials brushed aside the suggestions that U.S. forces would storm the aircraft. Said Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger: “We are using diplomatic means through the Algerian government.”

At the same time, Moslem militia units near the airport caused a momentary panic when they opened fire with anti-aircraft guns on an Israeli gunboat lying offshore. The firing caused no apparent damage.

For its part, the Pentagon maintains contingency plans for dealing with crises like last week’s hijacking, but many observers express doubt that even crack U.S. military units could rescue civilians caught in a precarious situation like that of TWA Flight 847. The Algerian government played a critical role in negotiating with the air pirates during the aircraft’s Saturday stop in Algiers. The tense negotiations, carried out over short-wave radio between the Algiers airport control tower and the hijacked Boeing, were led by Algerian Transport Minister Salah Goujil as well as the director-general of national security. The Algerians gained Washington’s respect in 1980’s hostage crisis. Indeed, the Algerian government prides itself in its go-between status in the Arab world, maintaining good relations both with hard-line states and with the West. Said U.S. Ambassador to Algeria Michael Newlin: “We are very grateful to the Algerian authorities for what they are doing. We think they are handling this in a very professional way.”

Late on the weekend some American officials blamed Tehran for the TWA seizure. U.S. state department officials have frequently blamed Iran-inspired terrorists for hijackings and related events. And Secretary of State George Shultz has informed Tehran that the United States would retaliate against it directly for terrorist activities by Shi’ite fundamentalists. Many observers said, however, that a military retaliation, possibly against Iran itself, might only inspire an unstoppable cycle of violence in the Middle East that could spread to much more distant shores.

With Andy Bilski.

Andy Bilski