JERUSALEM (Oct. 22)
Israelis reacted today with shock and bitterness to the news of the sinking of one of Israel’s three destroyers early last night by Soviet-made missiles fired from Egyptian naval units near Port Said.
The initial casualty figures on the disaster were given as 15 crewmen dead, 36 missing and 151 men rescued in a sweeping sea-and-air rescue mission, including 48 injured. The Elath one of two sister destroyers sold to Israel by Britain, was hit by three missiles in a brief action off the Sinai Mediterranean coast.
Captain Shlomo Harel, commander of the Israeli Navy, charged at a press conference today that Egypt had made an unwarranted attack despite the Egyptian-Israeli cease-fire agreement and despite the fact that the destroyer was on the high seas beyond the Egyptian-claimed 12-mile territorial waters.
Premier Levi Eshkol said that Israel would not forget “this wanton act by Israel’s worst foe.” He made the comment at a ceremony at President Shazar’s residence held to mark the start of Israel’s 20th anniversary. He said it was painful that “even this occasion must be tinged with sadness. We mourn some of our best sons, and their memory will be engraved on the scroll of Israel’s resurrection.”
(Foreign Minister Abba Eban described the attack last night in London, as he prepared to depart for New York and a possible United Nations Security Council session on the Middle East, as “unprovoked aggression and a violation of the cease-fire.”
(At the United Nations, Israel Ambassador Gideon Rafael sent an urgent letter yesterday to the President of the Security Council on the attack, calling it a “deliberate flagrant act of belligerence on the high seas,” calling the action “a matter of utmost gravity.” He said the attack followed a series of violations of obligations contracted by Egypt by accepting Security Council cease-fire resolutions. He did not ask for a Security Council meeting.
(In Washington, a State Department spokesman declined comment today on reports that Soviet-made missiles sank the Elath. The spokesman indicated that some response to the incident might result from consideration of reports at the State Department in the course of normal business tomorrow.)
THREE DIRECT HITS SCORED BY SOVIET-MADE MISSILES; SHIP SUNK AS RESCUE BEGINS
Survivors of the attack said the Elath was off Port Said in international waters opposite Romani on the northern Sinai coast. The crew was preparing for dinner when, suddenly, alarm whistles sounded. Before any crew members could man battle stations, the first missiles hit the ship, turning it to a dangerous angle and causing enormous internal damages.
Despite the damage, crew members began treating the wounded and seeking to repair the ship to enable it to get away. But a second salvo caught the ship and it began to sink. A few minutes later, radio messages were received from the vessel, announcing that the crew was abandoning ship.
Capt. Harel told newsmen he had been informed by ship officers that the Elath’s radar screens were clear and that nothing was observed on them just prior to the attack. He said that, suddenly, crew members on watch observed green flares from Port Said, followed by the approach of a swiftly-moving white cloud, the indication of a missile. The Elath had time to change speed and course but the missile, apparently containing a tracking device, also changed course, and hit the Elath amidships, wrecking a boiler. A minute later, a second homing missile hit the machine rooms, bringing the ship to a dead halt. The explosions stopped all power. Each of the missile one-ton warheads contained 1,000 pounds of explosives.
The ship was listing but still afloat when orders were issued to treat the wounded, most of them suffering from burns, and to try to repair the damage. As the abandon ship order was issued and the crewmen began placing wounded comrades on rafts, the third missile hit the stern of the Elath and it began to sink. A fourth missile exploded in the water, causing more casualties.
Shortly after the Elath sank, Israeli Air Force planes appeared to drop flares, lifeboats and rafts. Soon afterwards helicopters arrived and began picking up survivors. Every available air and naval craft was mobilized for the rescue operations. Some helicopters, which were carrying the most severely wounded survivors, were directed in midair to northern hospitals for surgery. The airlift continued all night through this morning.
Transport planes illuminated the area to enable rapid helicopter pickup. A clearing station was set up on shore. Capt. Harel said he never would have believed that the Air Force pilots could find the scene in the night pitch darkness so quickly and rescue the survivors with such speed.
Capt. Harel said that the missile attack apparently had been prepared in advance and waged from the Port Said area with no attempt to identify the target ship. He said that Israeli naval units regularly patrol the northern Sinai shores to a point west of the Romani village. He said the Elath was on a southerly direction when it was hit. The missiles came from either a Komar or Osso missile-carrying ship. The missiles have a range of about 18 miles.