TEL AVIV (Feb. 22)
The pilot of the Libyan airliner that strayed over Sinai yesterday was apparently trying to head back to Egyptian territory when he ignored signals to land and was shot down by Israel Air Force jets, it was learned today. The death toll meanwhile climbed to 92, including six of 13 survivors who died in or on their way to hospitals. Israeli rescue teams have cordoned off the area of the crash and were still searching for more bodies this morning.
It is still uncertain how many persons were aboard the Libyan Boeing 727 but the original estimate of 83, based on incomplete information, was obviously incorrect. Seven survivors are still alive.
The Cabinet, at a special meeting last night, said “It has been established beyond all doubt that the pilot of the Libyan plane noted the repeated warnings…The pilot even acknowledged that he noticed the warnings but nevertheless refused to heed those warnings,” the statement said.
Unconfirmed reports said that this was confirmed by the Libyan co-pilot, one of the survivors. He reportedly told his rescuers that both he and the pilot saw and understood the signals from the Israeli fighters to follow them to an airstrip for landing but decided instead to make for Egyptian territory because of the hostile relations between Israel and Libya. The co-pilot is in Beersheba Hospital where he is suffering from shock and injuries. His condition was reported as serious but not dangerous.
FLEW OVER SENSITIVE MILITARY AREAS
The Cabinet statement said that the plane had flown over a highly sensitive military area and “behaved in a way which aroused suspicion and concern regarding its intentions.” When it failed to respond to the warning signals, Israeli planes” “were forced as a last resort to intercept the plane.” The statement reiterated Israel’s sorrow over the loss of lives. Transport Minister Shimon Peres said last night that Israel had acted in accordance with international rules governing the intrusion of a civilian aircraft into its air space.
(A spokesman for the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) said in London today, “When you are requested to land in such a situation, you land quickly and ask questions afterwards.”)
A source identified as a personality connected with aviation said here today that the Libyan airliner’s pilot behaved in a reckless and irresponsible manner. The source noted that an airliner pilot yields to anyone holding a mock pistol or even a toothbrush pressed to his back and takes a plane anywhere he is told to. In this case, the pilot of the Libyan plane was facing interceptors which gave him clear signals to land but he ignored them and tried to escape from a region often described as one of the most dangerous in the world, the source said.
According to Israeli sources, the Libyan plane was hit on the edges of its wings. The pilot tried to make a belly landing on the sand dunes about 20 kilometers east of the Suez Canal but the plane crashed. Its three rear engines were torn off and smashed into the fusilage causing an explosion which may have been responsible for the high death toll. Of the 13 original survivors, five died at an Army field hospital in Sinai and on the way to Beersheba Hospital last night and a sixth succumbed at Beersheba Hospital this morning. Two of the survivors who died were women.