TEL AVIV (Feb. 4)
Israel Air Force jets intercepted a private Libyan plane bound for Damascus today and forced it to land at a military airfield in northern Israel to check out its passengers for possible terrorists. None were found and the aircraft was released at 6:30 p.m. local time, after four and a half hours, and allowed to proceed to its destination the Israel Defense Force announced.
Syria has demanded an immediate meeting of the united Nations Security Council to take up the incident which it described as piracy, Damascus Radio reported tonight. Tripoli Radio in Libya also branded the incident as an act of piracy and accused the United States of abetting it.
Israeli officials said the aircraft was intercepted because there was reason to believe dangerous terrorists were aboard. They claimed Israel had a legal right to force the plane to land for interrogation as part of the internationally sanctioned campaign to combat terrorism.
A MEANS TO DEFEND ISRAEL
Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, addressing delegates to the meeting of the Zionist General Council in Jerusalem today, said the interception was “one of the means we have to resort to in order to defend ourselves.”
He said that since Libya is a known “center of international terrorism” and the Libyan government aids terrorists who perpetrate acts of violence against Israelis and Jews, “when reports reach us of such dangers, Israel has the right to take steps to prevent acts of murder and terror.”
In the event, only Syrian political figures were aboard. One was identified as Abdallah El-Akhmer, deputy secretary general of the Syrian Ba’ath party. The passengers and crew were well treated, the IDF said.
The Army Radio said the plane was a twin-engined Gulfstream executive jet carrying nine passengers and a crew of three. It took off from Tripoli at 12:30 p.m. today and was intercepted shortly before 2 p.m. local time.
According to Tripoli Radio, the pilot reported 55 miles east of Cyprus, nearing the Syrian coast, that he was being tailed by unidentified aircraft. A report from an airfield in northern Cyprus said the interceptors were two Israeli jets. Tripoli Radio said contact was lost with the plane after the pilot reported he was being followed.
Libya charged that the U.S. Sixth Fleet, operating off its coast, helped the Israelis identify and pinpoint the plane.
On February 22, 1973, Israel Air Force jets shot down a Libyan commercial airliner enroute from Benghazi to Cairo, which had strayed into Israeli airspace over Sinai. Israel subsequently paid $300,000 indemnification to the families of the 108 airliner passengers and crew who died.
Israel admitted the error, which, it said, occurred because the Libyan pilot ignored internationally recognized signals to land and appeared to take evasive action, leading Israeli jets to believe the aircraft was in fact military.
In Washington, a State Department spokesman said of today’s incident, “There was no U.S. involvement of any kind.” A Defense Department spokesman also said there was no basis for a Libyan news agency report that U.S. warships in the Mediterranean used electronic surveillance methods to guide the Israelis to their target.
At the United Nations in New York, members of the Security Council were planning to hold later today informal consultations on the incident. A formal meeting of the Council is usually set after the informal consultations are concluded.