On November 23, 1985, a hijacked EgyptAir Boeing 737 passenger plane landed in Malta. It was the beginning of a 24-hour ordeal that ended in a bloody massacre with 62 people dead. Only one of the three hijackers survived and was brought to justice. Twenty-five years on, Kurt Sansone revisits the horrendous events that unfolded at Luqa airport.and seeks the recollections of a former minister, a senior police officer and a forensics expert.
It was an eerie walk down the runway for then Tourism Minister Joe Grima to the area where scores of dead people were lined up next to each other soon after Egyptian commandos stormed the hijacked plane.
“They seemed all asleep,” he says, recalling the horrific events that unfolded on that fateful November night 25 years ago at Luqa airport’s Park 4. He had been in the control tower with Prime Minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, who was directly negotiating with the hijackers to no avail. And then the botched commando attempt, which left 57 people dead in its wake.
“It was horrendous seeing dead women and children lying down in a long line with their eyes closed. It seemed as if they were asleep,” Mr Grima says.
He encountered the grim scene after having walked to the burning airplane with fellow minister Philip Muscat some time after the commando raid was over. An Air Malta garage had been transformed into a temporary morgue as requested by forensic expert and chief investigator Anthony Abela Medici. EgyptAir flight MS648 from Athens to Cairo was hijacked a day earlier, on November 23 and forced to land in Malta.
During the 24-hour ordeal before the fatal commando storming, one of the hijackers, Omar Mohammed Ali Rezaq, shot six passengers at point blank range, throwing them overboard onto the tarmac in a bid to force the Maltese authorities to refuel the plane. Two died and the other four survived the ordeal only because the 0.38 calibre pistol Mr Rezaq used was defective.
However, despite Mr Rezaq’s horrific cold blooded actions, the bloodbath had yet to start. In the Egyptian commandos’ raid, 52 passengers – including pregnant women and children – suffocated from the fumes that enveloped the aircraft when the soldiers placed a bomb underneath the fuselage to break into the hold. Another five were shot by them.
According to Dr Abela Medici, two kilos of highly-explosive Semtex were used, which provided more power than was necessary to allow the commandos safe entry into the plane.
“A well-placed package containing one kilogramme of Semtex could easily destroy half of Castille,” the retired forensic expert says, adding that during the on-site investigation other unused detonators were found, clearly showing the Egyptian’s intention to blow up the plane.
The saga had ended but the massacre left 60 people dead in its wake, including two hijackers. The commandos wanted to kill the terrorists at all costs and the third only survived because he masked himself as a passenger.
Badly injured Mr Rezaq was taken to hospital and operated on immediately. It was this prompt medical intervention that probably saved him from the clutches of the armed Egyptian commandos who went looking for him at hospital.
“Armed commandos entered hospital’s casualty area looking for a third hijacker and they only missed him because he was already in the operating theatre,” Dr Abela Medici says, recalling that tense moment when he confronted the soldiers and asked them to lay down their arms.
“Doctors and nurses were reluctant to work in an environment with armed men running around. Accompanied by (Police) Inspector Anġlu Farrugia, who spoke some Arabic, we managed to persuade them to put down their weapons until we locked them up in the porter’s lodge,” Dr Abela Medici recounts.
Eventually, Mr Rezaq was identified by passengers and crew members and brought to justice. The memories of that horrible day still bring back feelings of anger for Charles Cassar, who headed the police Special Mobile Unit at the time.
The SMU was tasked to secure the airport’s perimeter and eventually even arrested some of the Egyptian commandos after the massacre when they were ready to shoot at anything that moved.
In blunt terms he says the commandos mishandled the whole affair and accuses them of irresponsibility.
“It angers me when I remember the tragedy caused by the Egyptians. Although trained by the American Delta Force, they still did what they wanted,” he says with a sense of incredulity.
The commandos were dressed in jeans and white gym shoes, he recalls, only wearing a bullet proof vest as protection, apart from the firearms.
He insists the commandos made a lot of mistakes such as switching off the floodlights just before the attack, killing the surprise element, and shooting at anyone who moved when the doors above the wings were removed.
However, the biggest mistake according to Mr Cassar was the explosion underneath the airplane. It did not make sense, he says.
“They were highly incapable and irresponsible. After the attack we had found a lot of syringes on the runway. I don’t know what they were but could it be they took something to pluck up their courage?”
A big question hanging over the botched passenger rescue attempt was the government’s reluctance to accept help from the Americans, who offered to send over the specialised Delta Force team.
Apart from Dr Mifsud Bonnici’s anti- American sentiments, the government had argued the airplane was Egyptian territory and so the Egyptians were allowed to conduct their own rescue operation.
Mr Grima refuses to pass judgement on Dr Mifsud Bonnici’s decision not to allow the Delta Force, although he admits he would have taken a different stance.
“I do not agree the Americans were left out of the operation but you have to be in the decision maker’s shoes to make that assessment. Karmenu had a lot of responsibility on his shoulders and I supported every decision he took. It is only with hindsight and only if I were to take that decision that I would have allowed the Americans to come here and perform the rescue,” Mr Grima says.
He recalls, however, Dr Mifsud Bonnici’s words in the control tower when the commandos started the attack without informing the Maltese authorities.
“At about 8 p.m. the Egyptians stormed the plane and Karmenu’s first words were ‘they fooled us’. We saw a flash and immediately we realised the operation was underway,” Mr Grima says, adding that just an hour before the attack he had accompanied Dr Mifsud Bonnici at a meeting with the people who were leading the operation. Three people, representing the Egyptians, were present for the meeting and one of them was “blonde with blue eyes”, who Mr Grima believes was not Egyptian.
“I do not know who they were but I understood they were the Egyptians managing the commando operation. Karmenu gave the impression he knew an operation was going to happen and he wanted to know the time. The man in the middle told him 9 p.m. but these people were reluctant to give us any more information on their plans,” Mr Grima says.
On the way to the meeting, he recalls seeing a couple of non-Maltese people, slouching against the walls and wearing ill-fitting headwear. They probably were Egyptian commandos.
“They had to be Egypt’s elite team but it turned out they were another team of trainees already involved in a massacre at Larnaca airport in Cyprus,” Dr Abela Medici says, recalling the testimony given by three commandos who had to be treated at hospital after sustaining serious injuries when Mr Rezaq threw a hand grenade at them during the storming.
The 24-hour hijack came to an end after a two-minute operation that brought hell to Luqa airport and put Malta on the map for the worst ever airplane massacre before the September 11 attacks 16 years later.
See also -
Rezaq’s heinous crime