Israel Air Force Jets Blast PLO Headquarters in Tunisia

Israel Air Force jets blasted Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunisia, about 20 miles from the capital city of Tunis today and returned to their bases in Israel. Five, or possibly six Israeli aircraft took part in the precision bombing, according to eye-witness accounts from Tunisia.

They flew 1,500 miles to their target and the same distance home, a total of 3,000 miles during which the Israeli jets refueled in mid-air. It was the most distant operational flight by the Israel Air Force since the hostage rescue mission to Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976 and was longer than the bombing run that knocked out Iraq’s nuclear facility near Baghdad in 1981.

Reports from Tunis this morning said at least 15 persons were killed, presumably PLO terrorists. Reports from Tel Aviv quoted Israel’s Chief of Staff Gen. Moshe Levy as saying 30-50 were killed and many more wounded. According to Tunisian sources, the raid lasted 10-15 minutes and caused explosions heard in Tunis 20 miles away. Eyewitnesses said the complex of buildings that made up PLO headquarters was reduced to rubble.

The military and political headquarters were set up by PLO chief Yasir Arafat after he and several thousand of his fighters were ousted from Lebanon in 1983. It consists of a former resort hotel on the seaside surrounded by dozens of villas and barracks. A Tunisian reporter who visited the site after the bombing said the three main buildings were razed to the ground.

An Arab League spokesman told Tunis Radio today that Arafat is “safe” and reportedly was not in Tunisia at the time of the raid. But diplomatic sources in Tunis quoted by the French Radio said a member of his personal bodyguard, known as Force 17, was killed and many other members may also have been killed or wounded. Israel holds Force 17 responsible for the murder of three Israelis aboard a yacht in Larnaca, Cyprus on September 25, Yom Kippur. The raid on PLO headquarters in Tunisia is believed to have been ordered in retaliation for the killings. Several hundred Palestinians are normally stationed at the headquarters at Hamman, a beach resort south of Tunis and several hundred pass through it in transit. One of the villas was used by Arafat as his home.

The Tunisian Ambassador to France, Hedi Mabrouk, denounced the attack as “Israeli state terrorism,” noting that Tunisia had nothing to do with the PLO murders in Larnaca. The air raid was denounced by Arab diplomats at the UN General Assembly today but it was praised by the U.S. State Department as a legitimate act of self-defense. (See separate stories.)

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