Special to the JTA the Night of the Cancelled Flight
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Special to the JTA the Night of the Cancelled Flight

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Olympic Airlines, the national air carrier of Greece, was forced to cancel a flight to Cairo last Saturday night after the pilot refused to take off because three officials of the Palestine Liberation Organization were among the passengers.

The incident, and unprecedented checking and re-checking of airline passengers and their baggage by swarms of security agents, highlight the panic here since Palestinian gunmen attacked the airports at Rome and Vienna last Friday morning. The terrorist outrage, which cost 18 lives, has triggered a wave of anti-Arab sentiment in Greece.

The government, which seeks good relations with the Arab world, is trying to counter it by differentiating between “good” and “bad” Palestinians, with the PLO fitting into the former category.


Olympic Flight 325, bound for Cairo, was due to depart at 6:15 p.m. local time Saturday. Before any passengers boarded, a squad of police officers came aboard and asked the pilot, Capt. Acrivou Tsolaki, for permission to search the aircraft. This had never happened before. When the pilot asked why, he was told by the senior police officer that it was part of new security measures ordered by the government in the aftermath of the Rome and Vienna attacks.

Later, after the passengers had taken their seats, the police ordered another security check and suitcase identification. The passengers were required to get off the plane and identify their luggage, which had also been off-loaded. Only then were they allowed to return to their seats.

Finally, the doors were closed and the plane was ready to taxi to the runway for take-off when a car approached under tight security and three men who appeared to be Arabs came on board and were seated in different sections of the cabin.

By then Capt. Tsolaki was curious. He asked the chief of security to identify his last-minute passengers and was informed that they were a PLO delegation which had come to Athens for official talks with Athanassios Tsouras, the Undersecretary for Public Order. One of them was identified as Haiel Abdel Hamit, a member of the El Fatah central committee.


On learning who they were, Tsolaki flatly refused to fly the plane to Cairo on grounds that it would be endangered. A marathon discussion ensued involving the Olympic management, Minister of Public Transportation Georgios Papadimitriou and Tsouras. But Tsolaki stood firm. At 9 p.m. the flight was cancelled.

The Greek pilot maintained that since Israel has vowed to avenge the attacks in Rome and Vienna aimed at El Al passenger facilities, his plane could become a target of the Israel Air Force if it was known to be carrying top PLO officials.

Flight 325 was rescheduled for Sunday morning, with a different pilot, Capt. Evangelos Kapsalis. But he too refused to fly with the PLO men aboard. Finally, the PLO officials were forced to leave Greece on three separate flights.

There was no official comment, but according to rumor the entire affair was the result of Egypt’s refusal to allow the PLO officials to land in Cairo. Egyptian, the Egyptian airline, reportedly refused them passage.


Meanwhile, the Athens airport is literally surrounded by heavily armed police and the crack anti-terrorist unit maintains a round-the-clock patrol, focusing on the El Al ticket counter. Greek policemen and policewomen in civilian clothes are scattered among boarding passengers, pretending to be passengers.

According to one report, the panic was triggered by the chief of the Italian secret service (SISMI), Fluvio Martini, who said that the surviving terrorist captured in the Rome airport attack admitted under questioning that Athens and Madrid airports were the next targets of a suicide squad dispatched by Abu Nidal, the terrorist leader who broke with the PLO years ago.


Meanwhile, the government is countering rising anti-Arab sentiment in Greece with what some observers consider anti-Israel tactics. On the evening news Sunday night, the commentator said there were two kinds of terrorism — extremist groups and state terrorism.

He claimed that state terrorism was first employed by Israel on July 4, 1976 when it rescued hijacked Air France passengers being held hostage at Entebbe, Uganda, and that another example was the Egyptian commando raid on the Egyptian plane hijacked to Malta last November 23, which resulted in heavy loss of life. The Egyptian airliner was hijacked shortly after taking off from Athens for Cairo.

Until now, the Greek government has made no distinctions between the various Palestinian groups. Beginning last weekend, it discovered “good” Palestinians, represented by Yasir Arafat and the PLO, and “bad” ones, who are against the PLO. A television commentator noted Sunday night that Israel accuses all Palestinians without exception of being terrorists.

The government is trying to dispel anti-Arab feelings because it is dangerously low in foreign currency reserves and hopes to get short-term loans from the wealthy Arab oil-producing countries.

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