ATHENS (Nov. 27)
An Arab terrorist hurled a hand grenade into a crowded downtown office of El Al, Israel’s national airline, this morning, injuring at least 14 persons, two of them seriously. The explosion rocked busy Constitution Square, in the heart of the city, and caused extensive damage to El Al’s packed lounge and its offices.
Athens police arrested Elias Dergarabetian, 23, a Jordanian member of a minor commando organization which cooperates with El Fatah, who admitted throwing the grenade. Also taken into custody were two other men fleeing the scene.
Among the injured were an American couple identified only as a Mr. and Mrs. McClain from Texas. They were taken to nearby Hypocration Hospital along with two Greek brothers, George Natsios, 2, who suffered head injuries and underwent brain surgery, and Athanasios, 5, who also suffered head injuries and was reportedly blinded. Also reported injured was Alphonse Dimeck, 29, a British national hired by El Al as a ticket collector.
The attack came almost 11 months to the day after two Arab terrorists attacked an El Al airliner at Athens airport, killing a passenger, 50-year-old marine engineer Leon Shirdan of Haifa. The terrorists, who attacked the plane Dec. 26, 1968, with sub-machine-guns and grenades, face trial in Athens. There was an apparent misunderstanding a few days ago when Greek authorities said that their trial had been postponed indefinitely because it would hamper Greece’s relations with the Arab states. Following a strong protest and diplomatic representations by the Israeli Government, another statement was issued saying that the Arabs would go on trial next February. The suspects are Mahmoud Issa Mohammed, 26, a teacher, and Maher Hussein Suleiman Elymani, 20, a student.
A spokesman for Israeli diplomatic interests in Athens said that “at 9:30 a.m. local time a taxi pulled up in front of the airline office. Two persons remained in it while one ran into the lounge, which was packed with people, and threw the grenade.” Officials in Jerusalem described the blast as “a cold-blooded act of terrorism” and called for “the most severe punishment for those responsible.”
Greek authorities said that Dergarabetian, the suspect, came to Athens on Monday on a special mission to attack the offices of El Al. Shalom Saadom, the Athens El Al manager, said the deadly grenade was thrown as passengers were checking in for a flight from Tel Aviv to New York during a rush hour period.
Two grenades were found on Dergarabetian, a tailor of Armenian origin. Police and passersby stopped the trio as they tried to escape. The street outside the terminal was crowded with pedestrians, cars and busses at the time. Trickles of blood were seen mixed with rain on the sidewalk. An eyewitness said, “it was a miracle nobody was killed with so many persons sitting in the office.” An El Al woman employee said, “I heard a blast and I was so confused. When I turned around, I saw blood all over the place and some children were crying. A man next to me was lying on the floor. He was the ticket agent.”
(In Amman Jordan, a spokesman for the little-known Arab guerrilla organization, the Popular Struggle Front, said, “we did it because El Al is an extension of the Israeli enemy.” He said the grenade incident should serve as a warning to the public not to use El Al. Not much is known about the Front except that it was formed in East Jerusalem following the Six-Day War. Some of its cells were uncovered and its members were arrested. It then moved to Amman. It reportedly has carried out some minor operations against Israel, some in conjunction with El Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. It reportedly joined the guerrilla coordinating organization, the Palestinian Armed Struggle Command, about four months ago.
(El Al’s head office in Jerusalem said that all flights to and from Athens will continue as usual. Two El Al officials flew to Athens to help get the office back to normal. Repairs were expected to be costly. At the same time, the Israeli Government protested the incident to the Greek Government. An El Al spokesman said, “in spite of the vicious numerous attacks, El Al continues–and will continue–to fly on all its routes according to schedule. We do not anticipate any decrease in business. In fact, previous experience has shown the opposite to be the case.”)
Attacks on El Al planes and offices began May 23, 1968 when a plane was hijacked following its take-off from Rome with 38 passengers and 10 crew members and was directed to the Algiers airport. On Sept. 1, 1968 the incident ended with the release of the plane after the passengers and crew had been released earlier. Following the Dec. 26, 1968 attack at Athens airport. Israel retaliated with a devastating assault on the airport of Beirut, where the Athens terrorists had come from, which destroyed 13 commercial airliners without taking any lives. On Feb. 18, 1969 Arab terrorists attacked an airliner at Zurich airport. And last Sept. 8, two grenades were hurled into an El Al office in Brussels, injuring one employee and a customer. In addition, a Trans-World Airliner was hijacked to Damascus, Syria last Aug. 29 by terrorists. All passengers were released except two Israelis who are still being held.