Monday, July 03, 2006
Rescue At Entebbe, July 3, 1976
Today in 1976, a team of Israeli Defense Force soldiers rescued 100 Israeli and Jewish hostages being held at the Entebbe International Airport in Uganda. The daring raid was planned and implemented in less than a week and is today considered one of the greatest hostage rescue operations of all time.
On June 27th, 1976, Air France flight 139 left Athens, Greece and headed for Paris. There were 260 people on board, including 12 crew members. The flight had originated in Tel Aviv, so many of the passengers were Jewish---either native Israelis or people visiting the Holy Land. Less than an hour after takeoff, the flight was hijacked by four terrorists, two who claimed to be from the PLFP-EO (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and two from the German group Revolutionare Zellen. They ordered the flight to land at Benghazi, Libya, where it was re-fueled. From there, they headed for Entebbe in Uganda.
The terrorists soon announced that they would release all non-Israeli and non-Jewish passengers. The captain of Flight 139, Michel Bacos, said that he would not leave unless all the passengers were released and so chose to remain behind. His entire crew followed suit. A French nun offered to stay in exchange for the release of one of the Israelis, but she was forced to leave with the rest of the freed passengers. All told, 103 hostages remained in the old terminal building.
The terrorists demanded the release of 40 Palestinians held in Israel and 13 other detainees in other countries. It was later learned that the Israeli cabinet did, indeed, begin negotiations for the release of the the prisoners. It is believed, however, that these negotiations were only used to buy time for the military planners to put a rescue mission in motion. Publicly, Israeli government made it clear from the start that they would not negotiate with the terrorists or with Idi Amin’s pro-Palestinian government in Uganda.
The group chosen for the rescue mission was the Sayeret Matkal, an elite special forces unit of the Israeli Defense Force. The group was commanded by Yoni Netanyahu, a 30-year old Colonel and recipient of the Medal of Distinguished Service, Israel’s highest military award. The overall mission commander was Brigadier General Dan Shomron.
The plan was very straight-forward. Four Israeli Air Force C-130 transports flew to Entebbe Airport, with a fifth medical plane heading for Nairobi, Kenya across the border from Uganda. Aboard the C-130s was a black Mercedes borrowed from an Israeli civilian and several Land Rovers. These would be used in the drive up to the terminal building in the hope that the Ugandan guards would think President Idi Amin was arriving for an inspection. Israeli contractors had built the terminal facilities in the 1960’s and so the rescuers had access to detailed blueprints of the facility and could learn the likely locations of both the terrorists and the hostages from those who had already been released.
Once on the tarmac, the procession of autos quickly moved to the terminal building. One of the Ugandan sentries outside happened to know that President Amin had recently replaced his black Mercedes with a white one, so the appearance of a black car in the motorcade caused him to try to raise the alarm. He and his fellow sentry were quickly shot dead, but the Israelis did not know whether they still had the element of surprise.
The commandos burst into the main hall of the terminal where the hostages were being held. The yelled “Get Down!” in Hebrew, an order all but one of the hostages obeyed. He ran towards the commandos and was shot down in the confusion. One advantage this group of civilians had was that almost all them were Israeli and, as such, had experienced more than one war and had military experience. They knew it was best to lie down and stay out of the way.
The commandos then asked where the remaining terrorists were. The hostages pointed to a back room, which was showered with grenades and then stormed. Once convinced that the immediate area was clear, they began loading hostages onto the transport aircraft. Outside, some of the Ugandan guards opened fire on the hostages, killing two of them. The Israelis returned fire while the remaining hostages were loaded.
Colonel Netanyahu had given strict orders that any injured Israeli soldiers were to be left where they fell until the safety of the hostages was ensured. This order cost him his life. Early in the raid, Netanyahu was hit in chest; the mission continued and he was only looked after once the hostages were being loaded on board the C-130s. He died while being evacuated. The entire operation, originally called Operation Thunderbolt, was renamed Operation Yonatan after Yoni Netanyahu. His brother Benjamin, who was also an Israeli special forces operator along with their brother Iddo, became the Prime Minister of Israel from 1996-1999.
Captain Bacos, the Air France pilot who refused to leave any of his passengers behind, was reprimanded by his superiors for this act of defiance.