TEL AVIV (Feb. 21)
Israel Air Force jets downed a Libyan commercial airliner over the Sinai peninsula today. Seventy persons aboard the plane were killed and 13 survived the crash and were treated for injuries at an Israeli Army hospital in Sinai. The airliner, a Boeing 727 of the Libyan Arab Airlines, apparently strayed into Israeli airspace during bad weather. Israel claimed that the plane was shot at only after the pilot repeatedly ignored standard international signals from Israeli interceptors to land.
The Cabinet may be called into special session tonight to discuss the incident. An official statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem today expressed “deepest regret for the incident which caused the loss of human life.” The statement said “it was heartbreaking that the pilot of this aircraft did not respond to warnings which were given to him.”
An investigation was launched today to determine whether the Libyan airliner was actually shot down by the Israeli jets or whether it was damaged by gunfire and crash landed. Israeli technical crews were reportedly combing the wreckage for the “Black Box” which contains the flight recorder and other instruments that can provide clues to the plane’s fate.
PLANE PENETRATED 80 KILOMETERS OVER SINAI
An Army spokesman said that at 1:55 p.m. local time today, the plane penetrated Israeli airspace, overflew Israeli Army deployments along the Suez Canal and flew over an Army airfield. He said the plane penetrated some 80 kilometers over the Sinai peninsula but attempts to contact it over international radio channels brought no response. The spokesman said Israeli Air Force jets were then sent up to intercept the plane. He said they signaled the airliner to land, using internationally accepted signals but the pilot disregarded them and disregarded warning shots fired by the Israeli fighters.
At that point, the spokesman said, the Israeli pilots fired at the airliner and it crash landed some 20 kilometers east of the Suez Canal. Israeli Air Force helicopters with medical crews were rushed to the scene and started rescue operations. Thirteen of the passengers were brought to a nearby military hospital. The death toll was 70, the spokesman reported.
The spokesman stressed that Israel acted in accordance with accepted international procedures in attempting to contact the plane and in its warnings. He said attempts to contact the aircraft from the ground continued for 15 minutes before jets were ordered up to intercept it. (According to immediate but incomplete information the plane was en route from Tripoli, Libya, to Cairo.)
ABSENCE OF RESPONSE CAUSED TRAGEDY
Minister Without Portfolio Israel Galili termed the incident a “tragedy” and said that Israel “had no interest in downing a civilian airliner.” Galili, who frequently acts as a government spokesman; told a meeting of the Labor Party Kibbutz Forum here tonight that the Israeli pilots acted in accordance with international regulations and procedures. “It is difficult to understand why the Libyan pilot or the man responsible on the plane did not obey the recognized signals and thus caused the regretful tragedy,” he said.
Transport Minister Shimon Peres said on a radio broadcast tonight that Israel respected all international regulations governing civil aviation. “I do not understand why the pilot of the Libyan aircraft took upon himself erroneous decisions which were dangerous for his passengers,” Peres said.
An unidentified Israeli military source said tonight, “There is something fishy about all this. No one knows why the plane was there or what he was doing over our canal positions and an air base. Our pilots radioed him for 15 minutes to come down and make a safe landing.”
WARY ABOUT TERRORIST THREATS
Observers here noted that there has been a wariness in Israel since the recent surfacing of reports that Arab terrorists were planning to load an airliner with explosives and crash it on a suicide mission over a densely populated area of Israel. They said these reports may have caused “nervousness” in the Israeli reaction to the intrusion by the Libyan aircraft.
Israelis have bitter memories of a similar incident 18 years ago when they were victims. On July 27, 1955, an El Al Constellation that strayed into Bulgarian airspace was shot down by Bulgarian MIGs killing all 51 passengers and seven crew members. (See late news bulletin P. 3.)