This week, 33 years ago, Palestinian commandos seized a German airbus ferrying over 200 people, mainly Israelis, and forced it to land in Libya and then Uganda. Bamuturaki Musinguzi gives a blow-by-blow account of this sensational drama of the Seventies
On June 29, 1976, Ugandans woke up to the news that Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) commandos had hijacked a French airbus and forced it to fly to Entebbe Airport.
Two days earlier, on June 27, Air France Flight 139, an Airbus A300, originating from Tel Aviv, Israel, and carrying 238 passengers and a crew of 12, took off from Athens for Paris.
Soon after takeoff, the airbus was hijacked by the PFLP commandos and diverted to Benghazi, Libya. It was eventually forced to fly to Entebbe.
“Immediately the aeroplane came into contact with the Uganda Airport Control Tower, Life President Amin (now deceased) was informed,” the Voice of Uganda newspaper reported in its June 29, edition under the main headline: PFLP commandos hijack plane.
On humanitarian grounds, President Amin directed that the plane be allowed to land at Entebbe. Quickly, he got in touch with senior government and security officers to arrange for safety of the crew and the aircraft. He also directed that all passengers be supplied with food and refreshment.
“Since yesterday morning, President Amin and officers of his government have been negotiating with the hijackers for release of the passengers,” a government spokesman told Voice of Uganda.
The hijackers said no Ugandan security officer should go within 50 metres of the aircraft. The plane was parked at the eastern end of the old Entebbe Airport for security reasons.
The spokesman said President Amin had requested that the passengers and crew be moved into the Old Entebbe Airport building; a request that was accepted. The passengers were served food and refreshment.
“The public has been strongly warned to keep away from the building (lest) the commandos blow up the aircraft and all the hostages. (However), the New Entebbe Airport remains open of (to) international flights...,” Voice of Uganda reported.
The newspaper also carried a story: “Palestinians explain it all” with details of the commandos’ statement, which read in part: “The PFLP has seized the French airbus from Lydda Airport to Paris to declare to the world that the French state is an historic enemy of the Arab nation from Charlemagne to Giscard.”
Valery Giscard D’Estaing, son of a French civil servant serving with the occupying forces after the First World War, became President of France in 1974.
A supporter of the European Economic Community, while in office he played a crucial role in several international initiatives, including the creation of the European Council, the European Monetary System, the Disarmament Institute and the North-South Conference.
Other reforms introduced by Giscard included divorce and abortion law reform, and reduction of the voting age to 18.
During his period in office the French economy performed badly and he was defeated by Francois Mitterrand in the 1981 presidential elections. He returned to the National Assembly and became one of the leaders of the centre-right group, Union for French Democracy.
“The France of Giscard, in particular, is no more than a junior partner prostrate in front of United States imperialism, but it is an important executor of neo-colonialism in the Mediterranean...
“The French state is the only colonial empire that still controls Arab territory in Djibouti, where it is attempting to frustrate the desires of the people there.
And France is trying to remain in this region of the Red Sea to protect the Israeli exit to the Far East and Africa and to trade with the support of reactionaries of the area.
“As regards Israel, it has exploited humanistic sentiments of people to achieve inhuman ends, expelled Palestinians from their homeland and imported alien people to replace them under the slogan of rescuing Jews from Nazi-planned genocide and European barbarity, for which our people had to pay the price. This Israel is the ally and heir of Nazism,” PFLP said.
Voice of Uganda reported on June 30 that the commandos had set an ultimatum on release of all Palestinians held around the world, and captured while championing freedom of their motherland, all totalling 54.
Five Palestinians held in Kenya were Abu Hanafi, Thaer, Ibrahim Tawfia, Hassan and Salwa. There were 39 in Israeli jails, seven in West Germany, two in Switzerland and one in France.
Commandos would in returnfree all hostages inside the old airport building at Entebbe. Exchanges must be finished before noon tomorrow, they added. The Palestinian freedom fighters should be taken to Entebbe international airport to be exchanged with hostages and the aircraft.
Air France should transport the freedom fighters held in Israel to Entebbe international airport, and it should carry only the freedom fighters and crew.
They should inform the Uganda government of the date and time of arrival, and the flight number well in advance. Freedom fighters from countries other than Israel should be transported to Entebbe international airport through the host countries’ means.
The Somali envoy to Uganda is to represent the PFLP in the negotiations, and the French government should name the person to negotiate with the PFLP representative.
The name of the person who will represent France should be telegraphed to the Uganda government soon.
President Amin has already handed the demands of the PFLP to Marc Bonnefous, an official of France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Voice of Uganda reported.
The President told Mr Bonnefous that all the hostages were well and happy. A full-time medical team is at their service and they are being served with meals at the right times.
The French envoy to Uganda, Pierre-Henri Renard, thanked President Amin for making the hijackers allow the passengers to disembark. He said he would inform his government of PFLP’s demands.
On July 1, Voice of Uganda reported that PFLP had said President Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and his government were responsible for the five Palestinians arrested in the country on January 28 that year.
The PFLP spokesman said the Kenya government should reveal the whereabouts of the five Palestinians before 9am, July 1. If the Kenyan government did not comply with this demand, the PFLP would act against Mzee Kenyatta and his government throughout the world, the spokesman said.
In the Voice of Uganda, June 30, edition, it was also reported that sources close to the then OAU Chairman, President Amin, had quoted the PFLP representative as saying they supported Africa in the struggle against racist regimes in southern Africa and Rhodesia.
The PFLP warned of severe and heavy punishment if their demands were not met. Sources close to President Amin quoted him expressing gratitude for the support the Palestine people had, not only in the Arab world but also in Europe, and other parts of the world.
The sources noted that the hijackers included Europeans, while the number of Israelis on the plane was over 100.
Meanwhile, a government spokesman quoted President Amin requesting the PFLP to release children, elderly women, and those who might be sick.
Under the headline, “d’Estaing grateful to Marshal,” Voice of Uganda reported that the French President had written to President Amin thanking him for his participation in the negotiations.
On July 1, Voice of Uganda reported: “PFLP hijackers yesterday freed 47 hostages and told President Amin they would blow up the plane and the rest of the hostages if their demands were not met by the countries concerned by today noon.
“The hijackers want nobody around the area, or else they will blow up all hostages and themselves. The hijackers contacted the President in the afternoon at Entebbe airport and told him that members of Uganda’s armed forces must retreat by evening from 50 to 200 metres of the building.
They also told him the Ugandan soldiers must start digging trenches for their protection if the plane and the hostages were blown up.
The President handed over the released hostages at the old Entebbe airport building to the Somali envoy to Uganda, Mr Farah, who in turn handed them over to the French envoy to Uganda, Mr Renard, at the new Entebbe airport. Those released included four children and elderly women.
Addressing all the hostages earlier, President Amin said he was doing everything possible to secure their freedom. He said if their respective governments heeded the demands of the PFLP, all of them would be freed.
He told them that on release, they should tell their respective governments to solve the Palestinian problem.
In its editorial of July 1, Voice of Uganda praised the role played by President Amin. And on July 2, the paper reported that after intensive negotiations between President Amin and the hijackers, 100 hostages had been freed, except Israelis and those with double nationalities, the crew and the plane.
The PFLP also accepted the President’s request to extend the deadline from 12 noon GMT July 1 to 11am GMT on July 2. President Amin thanked the PFLP “very much” for the extension as it would give him more time to discuss with all parties concerned — the Somali ambassador and the French government.
On June 30, President Amin had a telephone conversation with Col. Bar Lev, an Israeli soldier, on the conditions the hijackers had given for safety of hostages, Voice of Uganda reported on July 1.
Col Bar Lev telephoned President Amin from his house in Israel. President Amin told him that he agreed to speak to him because he was his best friend.
He told him that the PFLP had warned that if Israel did not comply with their demands, they would blow up the aeroplane and all hostages by noon, July 1.
President Amin advised Col Bar Lev to tell the prime minister, and Gen Dayan to do everything possible to release the Palestinian fighters as demanded.
The President told Col Bar Lev that he was capable of bringing peace to Palestine and the Middle East, adding that he could do it better than Henry Kissinger or any other imperialist agent because he was always frank.
This was why he made the conversation public, he said. Indeed, he gave copies of the conversation to the Somali envoy in Uganda, who was representing PFLP in the negotiations.
President d’Estaing of France once again appealed to President Amin to try and secure the release of all hostages.
“The gravity of the situation and its extreme urgency lead me to once more appeal to your high authority so that a term be put to a situation that nobody can accept,” President d’Estaing wrote in a message quoted by Voice of Uganda on July 2.
In the same story, it was reported that Israel had told France on July 1 that it was ready to negotiate to free “a certain number of prisoners” in exchange for release of all the hostages.
Israeli Ambassador Mordechai Gazit told French Foreign Minister Jean Sauvagnargues of this decision. The French ambassador in Kampala, Pierre-Henri Renard, was told to tell President Amin of Israel’s decision, French officials said.
On Friday, July 2, President Amin left for Port Louis, Mauritius, for the 13th Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the OAU.
He hurriedly returned home on Saturday (July 3) to attend to the grave situation concerning the hostages. He returned after handing over the OAU Chairmanship to Mauritius Prime Minister Seewoosagur Ramgoolam.
The negotiations did not happen — Israel invaded Entebbe Airport on the night of July 3-4. Twenty members of the Uganda Armed Forces died and 13 were seriously injured, the Ugandan government reported. Five Palestinians and two German hijackers, including a woman, also died during the fighting that lasted 53 minutes.
But the international press indicated that 45 Ugandan soldiers died. Out of the 105 hostages, three died and 10 were wounded.
Members of the Uganda Armed Forces who died are: marines regiment, Capt. Yahaya, Staff Sergeant Gogo, Corporal Titiya, Lance Corporal Ayub Khan, Privates Jusua Alepele, Ganji, Moro, Mwaka, Adupa, Mania, Badru and Kabagambe.
Malire mechanised specialist reconnaissance regiment, Capt Ariga, Staff Sergeant Okello, Lance Corporal Musoke, Lance Corporal George, Privates Paulino, Mikaele, Andruga and Aliga.
The Palestinian hijackers who died were Haji Fayez Jabber, Abdel Razzak Al Sammarraie, Jayel Al-Arjah Aboh Khaled Al Khalayli and Aboh Ali. The Germans were Mahmoud and Halime, both from the German Revolutionary Cell.
The Government declared July 6 and 7 public holidays to mourn the officers and soldiers of the Uganda Armed Forces.
NEXT WEEK: Raid on Entebbe and the frosty relations with Kenya and Israel