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Commandos Seize El Al Plane, Divert It to Algiers; Israelis, Jews Said Detained

July 24, 1968
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

An El Al Israel National Air Lines passenger liner flying from Rome to Lydda International Airport was hijacked by Arab terrorists shortly after midnight today and forced to proceed to Algiers.

The plane, carrying 38 passengers and a crew of 10, put down safely at the North African airport two-and-a-half hours later. The Algerian authorities first announced that all 38 passengers would be flown immediately to France. Later, however, only 20 were permitted to depart for Paris in an Algerian plane. The remaining 18 -Israelis and Jews of American and other nationalities — were not allowed to depart and were reported tonight to have been placed in detention. There was no word as to the Algerian intentions with regard to the Israeli crew or the $5-6 million, seven-year-old Boeing 707 airliner.

Algerian sources were quoted as asserting that since a state of belligerency continued between Israel and Algeria following the 1967 June war, Algeria might consider the Israelis enemy nationals and the plane, enemy properly. An Algerian broadcast asserted that courtesy was shown the passengers but indicated that some might be detained along with the crew.

Algerian sources reported that the hijacking had been carried out by a Syrian Air Force officer traveling incognito, In command of a five-man commando squad. But the so-called Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine issued a statement in Beirut, claiming credit for the exploit. It called on the Algerian Government to hold the passengers and crew as hostages for Arab terrorists imprisoned in Israel.

The coup was carried out about 20 minutes after the giant Israel liner had taken off from Fiumicino Airport on a regularly scheduled return flight to Israel, and while it was still in Italian airspace. According to information here, the passengers included seven Catholic priests on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and the Rome chief of police, Signor Liberti, for whom a delegation was waiting at Lydda. One of the passengers was identified as Mrs. Hanna Uziel, 27, of Brooklyn. N.Y.

Traffic control at Lydda Airport received a message from the plane shortly after the hijacking revealing that its veteran pilot, Capt. Oded Abarbanel, had been forced to change course. The Israeli authorities and El Al officials swung into action immediately, seeking international assistance in securing the release of the plane, crew and passengers. Appeals for intervention were directed to the United Nations, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the Italian Government and Air France which maintains regular services into Algiers.

(Israeli sources at the United Nations said that Ambassador Yosef Tekoah had aroused Secretary-General U Thant at 4 a.m. to advise him of the development and to seek his intercession. Mr. Thant immediately communicated with Ambassador Tewfik Bouattoura of Algeria and informed him of his concern. The Algerian envoy is the current president of the Security Council. He reportedly told Mr. Thant he had no instructions from his Government.

(Diplomats at the United Nations headquarters were quoted today as being concerned that the Arab hijacking might trigger a whole series of similar incidents which could only increase tension in the Middle East and might result in retaliatory or deterrent actions.

(Ambassador Bouattoura had a meeting this afternoon with Mr. Thant on the affair. Ambassador Tekoah was in constant touch with UN Undersecretary Ralph Bunche, Mr. Thant’s second in command.)


A spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry said tonight that it was assumed that Algeria would release the plane and crew in accordance with international law and practice. It was pointed out here, however, that Algeria did not sign a cease-fire agreement with Israel after the 1967 war. Algerian Army units are reputed to be serving with the Egyptian forces along the west bank of the Suez Canal.

In somewhat similar circumstances, the Castro regime in Cuba has made it a practice to release United States civilian planes and crews hijacked over the U.S. and forced to proceed to Havana. It was pointed out here, however, that Algeria never released former Premier Moise Tshombe of the Congo, who was a passenger on a hijacked plane forced to land there, and was brought to release hijacked Swiss and British planes only with the greatest of difficulty.

El Al officials said in Israel that the loss of the plane would not interfere with the line’s operations. They said arrangements had been made to charter another Boeing 707 airliner to maintain all scheduled flights.

(An El Al spokesman in New York said the line was taking “maximum precautions” on the ground to prevent further hijacking attempts. He did not disclose the nature of these precautions.)

The “Popular Front” which claimed credit for the air piracy is a roof organization of four terrorist groups formed last year. It operated under Syrian auspices until some months ago when it ran into trouble with the Syrian authorities who jailed some of the Front leaders. Since then, the organization

is believed to operate under orders from Cairo. The Front is said to have between 400 and 500 members. It was allotted only four delegates to the recent council of terrorist organizations in Cairo out of 100 accredited.

(In Lausanne, Switzerland, a self-proclaimed spokesman for the Front said the hijacking marked the beginning of a new campaign which would include similar hijacking attempts and the kidnaping of prominent Israelis.)

The skipper of the hijacked plane, Capt. Abarbanel, 41, a decorated veteran of the Israeli Air Force, was said in one unconfirmed report to have been struck on the head with a revolver butt to compel him to alter the plane’s course. His associates here recalled that Capt. Abarbanel was the pilot of the El Al plane that inadvertently violated Hungarian air space two years ago on a flight from Vienna. He evaded Hungarian MIG fighters that sought to force him to land and brought the plane safely home.

A passenger who arrived in Paris reported that the El Al airliner was piloted by a hijacker, apparently the man later identified as a Syrian Air Force officer. The Israeli pilot was badly beaten on the head and thrown in the rear of the plane, bleeding profusely, according to another passenger.

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