At least 16 teen-aged school children were killed and 70 were wounded late this afternoon in a school building in the Western Galilee town of Maalot where they had been held hostage for more than 12 hours by three armed Arab terrorists. The terrorists were also slain when Israeli troops stormed the building at 5:30 p.m. local time. Premier Golda Meir announced the tragic toll to a stunned and shocked nation tonight in a radio and television broadcast. She said the casualty figures were still unconfirmed and not final.
It remained unclear tonight whether the children were killed by the terrorists or were caught in the cross-fire between the terrorists and attacking Israeli troops. According to Mrs. Meir, the terrorists exploded grenades before the Israeli soldiers entered the building. One survivor said later that they had opened fire on the children trying to escape. The wounded were rushed to hospitals in Nahariya, Safed and Haifa. Nine of them were reported in serious condition.
The young victims were high school students from Safad who were on a three-day camping trip and spent the night at the Netiv Meir school building in Maalot. The terrorists seized the building before dawn and demanded that Israel free 20 imprisoned terrorists by 6 p.m. local time or they would blow up the building. The three terrorists had earlier murdered three members of a Maalot family after gaining entry to their house by a ruse. Hours before, they shot up a truck carrying workers, mostly Arabs, killing a woman.
CODE WORD NEVER ARRIVED
The Israeli government, meeting in tense emergency session this morning, agreed to the terrorist demands. A brief announcement broadcast at 2 p.m. local time said, “In order to secure the release of the pupils at Maalot, the Cabinet decided to release the terrorists as demanded.” But a delay ensued involving the dispatch of the French Ambassador, Jean Hurly, to Maalot to serve as go-between. The terrorists had insisted that the French and Rumanian ambassadors serve in that capacity and that the French envoy identify himself by a code word arranged between terrorist representatives and French authorities in Paris. The code word never arrived from Paris.
As the deadline neared and the terrorists gave no sign that they would extend it, the government ordered troops to attack the building. Mrs. Meir said the authorities were convinced that the terrorists would carry out their threat to blow up the school. She said the terrorists were only wounded in the first assault and were thus able to explode grenades killing and wounding their hostages.
Information Minister Shimon Peres said at a news conference tonight that the government had no intention of tricking the terrorists. The prisoners were to be released and one, in fact, had been taken blindfold from a Gaza Strip prison to Ben Gurion Airport as a gesture of good faith. But because of the “wild and barbaric planning which expelled the wild and barbaric execution.” the terrorists had no speedy means of transmitting their chosen code word to Paris from where it was to have been relayed to Hurly, Peres said. The same applied to the Rumanian envoy who was to have received an identifying code.
‘A BITTER DAY, A DAY OF HORRORS’
Peres said the Cabinet’s decision was a reversal of Israel’s standing refusal to surrender to terrorists. But the unprecedented seizure of a large number of children as hostages forced the Cabinet to take an unprecedented decision, he said. Peres added that the government, however, refused another terrorist demand that half of the hostages fly out of the country with them to an Arab capital. Mrs. Meir said in her broadcast tonight that “the Cabinet decided it would not conduct wars on the backs of children.”
When news of the Maalot outrage first broke here this morning, U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger cancelled his scheduled trip to Damascus today for continued disengagement talks with Syrian President Hafez Assad. A statement released here in Kissinger’s name expressed “shock and outrage” at the terrorist acts and said “Our hearts go out to the families (of the hostages) and to all of Israel.” (See separate story.)
The Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a terrorist group headed by Nayef Hawatmeh, claimed credit for today’s outrage in a statement issued in Beirut. The attack on Maalot coincided with the 26th anniversary of Israel’s independence (May 14-15, 1948). It occurred little more than a month after the terrorist massacre in Kiryat Shemona which claimed 18 lives. Maalot lies midway between Safad and the Mediterranean coast and about 10 kilometers from the Lebanese border. The terrorists are believed to have infiltrated from Lebanon.
Describing the day as “a bitter day, a day of horrors,” Premier Meir expressed hope that the international community will once and for all recognize the true nature of the so-called Palestine liberation movement.
CHRONOLOGY OF TRAGIC EVENTS
A chronology of events pieced together from reports indicates that the terrorists entered Israeli territory late last night. At about midnight they attacked a truck carrying workers home from the Ata factory in Kiryat Atta. They were mostly residents of the Christian Arab village of Fasuta. One woman was killed.
The terrorists entered Maalot some time after 3 a.m. local time. According to reports from residents, they knocked on the doors of several houses, announcing themselves as Israeli policemen searching for terrorists. They were dressed in Israel army uniforms and at least one of them spoke Hebrew. Only one householder, Yaakov Cohen, 50, opened his door. He was shot to death by the terrorists who also murdered his wife, Fortuna, 40, and his four-year-old son, Elie. A year-old son, Yitzhak, was saved and was taken in by neighbors. The terrorists apparently knew the Netiv Meir school was occupied by the campers, aged 14-16. They approached the building at about 3:50 a.m. local time, just as a monitor was taking out garbage cans. He testified later that the terrorists greeted him in Hebrew and asked how many children were in the building. When he told them, he was shot and wounded. As the terrorists entered the school room firing machine-guns, 10 students and two teachers escaped by jumping out of windows.
A woman officer of the Israeli army who was accompanying the students was released by the terrorists to carry their demands to Israeli authorities. Two students were also released later on. One of them, Rachel Lagziel, 16, reportedly delivered a note containing terrorist demands to Defense Minister Moshe Dayan who flew to the scene from a Cabinet meeting this morning. The terrorists, communicating by loudspeaker, warned that the grounds around the school were mined and that it would be blown up if troops tried to close in.
The terrorists demanded the release of 20 imprisoned terrorists who were to be flown to Cyprus or other neutral territory and thence to an Arab capital and safe passage for themselves out of Israel. Their list reportedly included Kozo Okamoto, the hired Japanese gunman of the May 30, 1972 Lod Airport massacre who is serving a life sentence in Israel, and two Israeli Jews imprisoned for spying. “Even if we had accepted the plan, we would not have been able to carry it all out before the 6 p.m. deadline,” Premier Meir said tonight. “We did not have the slightest doubt that the terrorists would not extend the deadline even one minute after six.”
For the close to six terror-ridden hours the children were kept crouched on the floor of the school under the menacing guns of the terrorists. Many of the children were sobbing or were in a state of shock. Many of their parents came to Maalot from Safad to follow closely any developments and wait for the release of the children. Young mothers brought food to Israeli police and soldiers posted outside the building.
Maalot was founded in 1956 primarily for new immigrants. It is home to some 650 families, a total population of 5100. Ninety percent are Moroccan families, the rest North Africans and a few Russian families. Half of Maalot’s inhabitants are children and youths 18 years of age or younger. The Mayor of the town is Elie Ben Yaacov.
According to unofficial reports the death toll rose to 25 by late afternoon New York time.
ANOTHER BLOOD BATH AVERTED
In a development apparently unrelated to the Maalot outrage, an attempted terrorist bloodbath in the heart of Jerusalem was averted this morning when police found and disarmed three Katyusha rocket launchers. Two of the launchers were aimed at densely populated areas of the city. The third reportedly was aimed at the King David Hotel where Kissinger and his party are staying. The weapons were reportedly spotted by a local Arab who immediately called the police.
Israeli security authorities, anticipating a new wave of terrorist activity on the anniversary of Israel’s independence, had warned the public to be especially alert. Police Chief Shaul Rosolio said in a broadcast last night that the public must be extremely cautious and report every suspicious act, even trifles. Security authorities reportedly had knowledge that a terrorist gang entered Israel some time on Sunday but lost track of them. It was reported yesterday that security forces arrested nearly 100 West Bank Arabs in recent days on suspicion of planned terrorist activities.
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