Thursday, 28 February 2008

Cyprus: 1978 el-Sebai assassination

I was so intrigued I had to check the story after I read "what the [Cyprus] Mail said"(1) on the 27th February 1978:
The preliminary inquiry opened in the Nicosia District Court yesterday into charges against two young Arabs accused of the premeditated killing of Egyptian [friend of President Anwar Sadat, al-Ahram editor] Yussef el Sebai in the Cyprus Hilton nine days ago. It was the killing of Mr Sebai that led to Egypt sending commandos to Larnaca to try to free 11 hostages held on board a Cyprus Airways plane by two gunmen. Fifteen commandos lost their lives in a clash with Cyprus security forces.

(photo credit (2))

The Egyptian State Information Service concluded its hagiography, '[Youssef] El-Sebai stressed in his writings... the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and statehood. However, he was assassinated [on] February 18, 1978 by an extremist Palestinian group in Nicosia, Cyprus, where he was attending a conference dedicated to peace and security for the nations of the world.'

The BBC reported that, after the assassination, '[n]egotiators then agreed to allow the killers to leave Cyprus with 11 hostages including Egyptians, in a Cypriot Airlines DC8. However, the plane was forced to return to the island after other states refused to allow it to land.' The BBC explained that the Cypriot government felt that they couldn't let Egypt intervene, because '[t]hey risked inflaming Middle East opinion, where Egypt had been virtually ostracised after making peace overtures with Israel'.

Time gave yet more details. Egyptian President Sadat had 'begged President Kyprianou to rescue the hostages, one of whom was Egyptian, and to send the Palestinian killers to Cairo for trial', whereupon Greek Cypriot President Spyros Kyprianou promised Sadat that 'I personally will handle the matter', but Sadat 'knew that Cyprus had long been a haven for Palestinian terrorists. Fearing that the killers might be freed', Sadat sent Egyptian army commandos to Larnaca and told Kyprianou that 'we have people on the way to help rescue the hostages'.(3)

Sadat was right to distrust Kyprianou, for, when no other state had accepted the hijackers, he had promised them 'Cypriot passports and safe conduct to Athens in exchange for the hostages'. In the meantime, however, because two of the hostages were Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) members, Kyprianou had also agreed to let then PLO Chair Yasser Arafat's gunmen try to assassinate the hijackers if the need and opportunity arose, even sending a Cypriot plane over to collect them.

Kyprianou insisted on negotiations and blocked Egyptian commando intervention, whereupon '[General] Shukry correctly decided that the Cypriots were preparing to release the two assassins.... [and] sent his men into action - and disaster'.
The tail of the Egyptian transport dropped, and a Jeep with four men aboard charged down the ramp. Firing nearly all the way, the men in the Jeep sped toward the DC-8 800 yds. down the dark tarmac. The remaining commandos moved out on foot at an almost leisurely pace. It proved fatal....

[A]stonished Cypriot officials immediately ordered their national guardsmen to shoot the commandos.(4) The Egyptians were caught in a deadly fusillade; the Jeep was hit by grenades, its occupants killed. Most of the outgunned Egyptians took shelter in a nearby plane. Finally they surrendered. Then the hijackers meekly turned over their weapons and gave themselves up.
  1. Cyprus Mail. 2008: "What the Mail said". Cyprus Mail, 27th February, 6.
  2. "Lieutenant Frank Drebin" scanned this photograph from a book and uploaded it to; I don't know which book this is from or whom holds the copyright.
  3. Time commented that, '[c]learly, Sadat was preparing for an Entebbe-like raid'. The BBC relayed that, in Operation Thunderbolt, on the 4th of July 1976, Israeli commandos had stormed Entebbe Airport in Uganda and 'rescued 100 hostages, mostly Israelis or Jews' from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Red Army Faction (RAF)/Baader-Meinhof gang hijackers.
  4. Time noted that 'there were reports that Arafat's men participated in the shooting of the Egyptian commandos, but Cyprus officials insisted that the P.L.O. squad never fired a shot'.
(I haven't put this on human rights archaeology because it's interesting, but as far as I can tell now, not relevant enough to my work to make it worth including.)

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