EgyptAir Flight 648
EgyptAir Flight 648 Hijacking summary Date November 23, 1985 Type Hijacking Passengers 89 (excluding 3 hijackers) Crew 6 Fatalities 60 Survivors 38 (1 hijacker) Aircraft type Boeing 737-200 Operator EgyptAir Flight origin Athens (Ellinikon) International Airport Destination Cairo International Airport
EgyptAir Flight 648 was a Boeing 737-200 airliner, registered SU-AYH, hijacked on November 23, 1985 by the terrorist organization Abu Nidal. The subsequent raid on the aircraft by Egyptian troops resulted in dozens of deaths, making the hijacking of Flight 648 one of the deadliest such incidents in history. (Incidentally the same aircraft had been diverted by the U.S. Navy a month earlier, after the Achille Lauro hijacking on October 7.)
On November 23, 1985, Flight 648 took off at 8pm on its Athens-to-Cairo route. Ten minutes after takeoff, three Palestinian members of Abu Nidal hijacked the aircraft. The terrorists, calling themselves the Egypt Revolution, were heavily armed with guns and grenades.[clarification needed] The terrorist leader, Omar Rezaq, then proceeded to check all passports. It was at this point that an Egyptian Security Service agent aboard opened fire, killing one terrorist instantly before being wounded along with two flight attendants. However, in the exchange of fire the fuselage was punctured, causing a rapid depressurization. The aircraft was forced to descend to 14,000 feet (4,300 m) to allow the crew and passengers to breathe.
Libya was the original destination for the terrorists; however, due to the negative publicity the hijacking would have had if flown to Libya and the fact that the plane did not have enough fuel, Malta was chosen as a more suitable option. The aircraft was now running dangerously low on fuel, experiencing serious pressurization problems and carrying a number of wounded passengers. However, Maltese authorities still did not give permission for the aircraft to land (the Maltese government had previously refused permission to other hijacked aircraft, such as on September 27, 1982 when an Alitalia aircraft was hijacked on its way to Italy). However, the EgyptAir 648 terrorists insisted, and they forced the pilot, Hani Galal, to land at Luqa Airport. As a last-ditch attempt to stop the landing, the runway lights were switched off, but the pilot still managed to land the damaged aircraft safely.
Nationality Passengers Crew Total Egypt 50 6 56 Greece 25 0 25 Israel 2 0 2 United States 9 0 9 Mexico 2 0 2 Total 88 6 94
At first, Maltese authorities were optimistic they could solve the crisis. Malta had good relations with the Arab world, and 12 years earlier had successfully resolved a potentially more serious situation when a KLM Boeing 747 landed there under similar circumstances. The Maltese prime minister, Dr. Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, rushed to the airport's control tower and assumed responsibility for the negotiations. Aided by an interpreter, he refused to refuel the aircraft and to withdraw the Maltese armed forces which had surrounded the plane until all passengers were released. Eleven passengers and two injured flight attendants were allowed off. However, the hijackers soon started shooting hostages, starting with Tamar Artzi, an Israeli woman. France, Britain and the United States all offered to send anti-hijack forces. Rezaq, the chief hijacker, threatened to kill a passenger every 15 minutes until his demands were met. His next victim was Nitzan Mendelson, another Israeli woman. He then shot three Americans - Patrick Scott Baker, Scarlett Marie Rogenkamp and Jackie Nink Pflug. Of the five passengers shot, Artzi, Pflug and Baker survived.
Mifsud Bonnici was by now under heavy pressure both from the terrorists and from the United States and Egypt, whose ambassadors were at the airport. The non-aligned Maltese government feared that either the Americans or the Israelis would arrive and take control of the area, as the U.S. Naval Air Station Sigonella was only 20 minutes away. A U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules with an aeromedical evacuation team from Rhein-Main Air Base (2nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron) near Frankfurt, Germany, and rapid-deploying surgical teams from Wiesbaden Air Force Medical Center were on standby at the U.S. Navy Hospital at Naples. When the U.S. told Maltese authorities that Egypt had a special forces counterterrorism team trained by the U.S. Delta Force ready to move in, they were granted permission to come. The Egyptian Al-Sa'iqa (Thunderbolt) unit — Task Force 777, under the command of Major-General Kamal Attia — was flown in, led by four American officers. Negotiations were prolonged as much as possible, and it was agreed that the plane should be attacked on the morning of November 25 when food was to be taken into the aircraft. Soldiers dressed up as caterers would jam the door open and attack that way.
Without warning, around an hour and a half before the planned time of the raid, the Egyptian commandos attacked the passenger doors and the luggage compartment doors with explosives. Prime Minister Mifsud Bonnici claimed that these unauthorized explosions caused the internal plastic of the plane to catch fire, causing widespread suffocation. On the other hand, the Times of Malta, quoting sources at the airport on the day, held that when the hijackers realized that they were being attacked, they lobbed hand grenades into the passenger area, killing people and starting the fire aboard. Both the Egyptian explosives and the hijackers' grenades could have been responsible for the fire and deaths.
The storming of the aircraft killed 56 out of the remaining 88 passengers, two crew members and one terrorist. Only one terrorist — Omar Rezaq, who in fact had survived — still remained undetected by the Maltese government. The terrorist leader, who was injured during the storming of the aircraft, had got rid of his hood and ammunition and pretended to be an injured passenger. Egyptian commandos tracked Rezaq to St. Luke's General Hospital and, holding the doctors and medical staff at gunpoint, entered the casualty ward looking for him. It was not until some of the passengers in the hospital recognized him that he was eventually arrested.
A total of 58 out of the 90 passengers had died by the time the crisis was over.
Rezaq was put on trial in Malta, yet with no anti-terror legislation, he was tried on other charges. There was widespread fear that terrorists would hijack a Maltese plane or carry out a terror attack in Malta as an act of retribution. Rezaq was given a 25-year sentence, of which he served only eight. His release caused a diplomatic incident between Malta and the U.S. because Maltese law strictly prohibited trying a person twice, in any jurisdiction, on charges connected to the same series of events (having wider limitations compared to classic double jeopardy). Following his immediate expulsion on release, he was nevertheless captured on arrival in Nigeria. After three months he was handed over to the U.S., brought before a U.S. court and, on October 7, 1996, was sentenced to life imprisonment with a no-parole recommendation.
Aftermath and criticism
In his 1989 book Massacre in Malta, John A. Mizzi writes:
“ Malta was faced with a problem it was ill-equipped to meet. The authorities took a firm stand in denying fuel to the hijackers but made no sensible provisions, through political bias and lack of experience, to meet the circumstances that arose from this decision. No proper team was set up at the outset to evaluate or deal progressively with the crisis, although only a few days previously an incident management course had been organized by a team of U.S. experts in Malta at the request of the government. ”
“ The Egyptian commandos were given too free a hand and they acted out of their mission with little regard for the safety of the passengers. They were determined to get the hijackers at all costs and the Maltese government's initial refusal for U.S. anti-terrorist resources (a team led by a major-general with listening devices and other equipment) offered by the State Department through the U.S. Embassy in Malta - a decision reversed too late - contributed in no small measure to the mismanagement of the entire operation. ”
Mizzi also mentions how Maltese soldiers positioned in the vicinity of the aircraft were equipped with rifles but were not issued ammunition. Furthermore, an Italian secret service report on the incident showed how the fire inside the aircraft was caused by the Egyptian commandos who placed explosives in the aircraft cargo hold - the most vulnerable part of the aircraft, as it held the oxygen tanks which blew up. During the hijacking, only the Socialist Party media and state-controlled television were given information on the incident. Such was the censorship of the media that the Maltese people first heard of the disaster through RAI TV, when its correspondent Enrico Mentana spoke these infamous words live on the air via a direct phone call: "Parlo da Malta. Qui c'è stato un massacro ..." ("I'm speaking from Malta. Here there's just been a massacre ...") Shortly before this broadcast, a news bulletin on the Maltese national television had erroneously stated that all passengers had been released and were safe.
Decisions taken by the Maltese government drew heavy criticism from overseas. The Greek government was angered by the outcome of the incident as "it expected the Maltese government to consult it before the commandos went into the attack." Italian Interior Minister Oscar Luigi Scalfaro queried the Maltese handling of the hijacking and questioned whether Maltese authorities should have tried to stop the plane landing by switching off the runway lights, adding that "not to give landing permission is a crazy risk." He also questioned the Maltese method of negotiations, saying that "a hijacker is not going to suddenly become a saint." The fact that the Egyptian commandos had stormed the aircraft without the authorization of the Maltese government and before special instruments had arrived from Italy to aid the attack showed that the Maltese armed forces had lost complete control of the situation at Luqa Airport.
The United States protested to Malta about the U.S. personnel sent to resolve the issue having been confined to Air Squadron HQ and the U.S. Embassy in Floriana. The United States had seen the situation as so ‘hot’ that it had ordered a number of U.S. naval ships, including an aircraft carrier, to move toward Malta for contingency purposes.
Five days after the hijacking, evidence emerged of continued Abu Nidal activity on the island. On November 29, the Egyptian Embassy in Malta sent the Maltese Ministry of Foreign Affairs an urgent note saying that "the Egyptian authorities had received information that a terrorist group composed of 5 to 7 persons and belonging to the Abu Nidal Organization were about to arrive in Malta to assassinate Omar Mohammed Ali Rezaq, the only surviving terrorist who at the time was under intensive medical care at St. Luke’s Hospital. The Maltese government never produced any detailed report on the incident, with the only comprehensive account available coming from the Italian Secret Service.
EgyptAir now uses Flight 648 on its Riyadh-Cairo route.
In popular culture
The events of the hijacking were related in an account by American survivor Jackie Nink Pflug, who had been shot in the head, on the Biography Channel television program I Survived..., which aired April 13, 2009. She also related details leading to the flight and the attack in her 2001 book, Miles to Go Before I Sleep. The incident was also chronicled in an Interpol Investigates episode, "Terror in the Skies", aired by the National Geographic Channel.
Incidents resulting in at least 50 deaths shown in italics. Deadliest incident shown in bold smallcaps.
- ^ a b "EgyptAir Flight 648." Aviation Safety Network. Retrieved on December 24, 2008.
- ^ http://www.airdisaster.com/cgi-bin/view_details.cgi?date=11241985®=SU-AYH&airline=EgyptAir
- ^ http://www2.eluniversal.com.mx/pls/impreso/noticia.html?id_nota=13719&tabla=espectaculos
- ^ http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19851124-0
- ^ a b Mizzi, J.A. (1989). Massacre in Malta : The Hijack of Egyptair MS 648, 72 p:ill. J.A. Mizzi - Valletta : Technografica, 1989. DDC : 364.162
- ^ Miles to Go Before I Sleep at Google Books.
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