TEL AVIV (Aug. 16)
A Lebanese Middle East Airways Boeing 707 jet with 119 passengers and crew members aboard was hijacked this afternoon over Cyprus and forced to fly to Lod Airport. The plane, on the way from Benghazi to Beirut, was hijacked by a man who brandished two guns and told the pilot to head for Israel. As the plane entered Israeli territory the pilot reported that the plane was being hijacked and that a gunman was ordering him to fly to Lod. Israeli military planes intercepted the Boeing 707 and guided it to the airport where it landed at the far end of the landing strip.
The plane was immediately surrounded by Israeli security troops and commando units. Less than an hour after it landed, commando troops stormed the plane and captured the hijacker and freed the passengers. Lod Airport, which had been alerted to the hijack, was under tight security wraps.
Israeli officials described the hijacker as a “drunken madman.” This tallied with the description given by passengers who described the hijacker as a “crazy drunken man who kept smiling as he brandished his two guns and ordered the pilot to change course.” First reports had it that there were two hijackers aboard, but this proved to be false. It was also reported that the hijacker asked Israeli authorities for political asylum but this could not be confirmed.
PILOT OFFERED AID BY ISRAELIS
Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Army Chief of Staff David Elazar rushed to Lod Airport as soon as the news of the hijack and its diversion to Israel was reported. Both officials offered the pilot of the plane any aid he required. Passengers applauded the Israeli commandoes when they seized the hijacker. The passengers were taken to an area of the airport landing space and given refreshments and cookies.
The hijacker, identified as Muhammed Zaitouni, 37, was being held by Israeli authorities for questioning. There was no immediate disclosure of his nationality. There were reports that Zaitouni was wounded during the capture as the sound of a gun being fired was heard. Later, however, it was reported that the firing occurred when one of his two guns fell to the floor and went off by accident.
The hijacker was apparently kept talking at the door of the plane by Israeli security agents while another group forced their way through an emergency exit on the other side of the plane. Three of them jumped the hijacker and overpowered him.
Premier Golda Meir, speaking at a political rally later, said the incident was an example of what is happening in commercial air travel today. “A young drunken madman with two pistols can endanger the life of passengers,” she said. Mrs. Meir said that there was an Arab envoy aboard but he would be allowed to leave with the other passengers. She was apparently referring to the Libyan Ambassador to Iraq.
A spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization in Beirut said that Israel at first refused to allow the plane to land at Lod Airport but subsequently agreed. Today’s incident happened just six days after Israel intercepted a Lebanese airliner over Beirut and forced it down in Israel and less than 24 hours after the Security Council condemned Israel for the action.
The only time previously a plane was hijacked to Israel was in May, 1972, when Arab terrorists took over a Belgian Sabena Boeing 707. Israeli commandoes, disguised as maintenance men bluffed their way aboard killing two of the hijackers.