Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The ELF special unit that targeted Ethiopian planes in 1969

Left to right: Mohamed Ali Afarorah and Mohamed Osman Yusuf Saig
Fisseha Abraha Fikak

So that the young generation understands the sacrifices made for this country, a country that has been high jacked by the ruling junta. This is an account of a special unit in the ELF, called ‘Punishment’ that was established in the late 1960s to target Ethiopian planes, as legitimate targets, as they transported soldiers and weapons to Eritrea. It was during one of those operations that the late Pakistani Prime Minister, when young, defended the Eritrean Fedayeen to be released from jail there. In all the five operations, there were no human casualties. 

 The heroic operations of the ‘Punishment’, special unit 

The late, Osman Denden, in his book, "The battle of Eritrea", in Arabic, documents the struggle of the Eritrean people for independence. We present below excerpts from the book on that special unit, ‘Punishment’ or Igab, in Arabic.

‘Igab’ which literary translates to ‘Punishment’, in English is a type of bird of prey in North America. This was the name given to a special commando unit, in the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). The late Osman Saleh Sabbe, established and it was supervised personally by him. He selected the members of the unit and even participated in transporting weapons and explosives to the site of the operations. The commando unit was formed early 1969 in a document written in blood whose operations were to be governed by international laws regarding war. It gave the Eritrean revolution the right to target economic interests of the enemy on the ground, in the air and the sea.

After the end of the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, the Ethiopian foreign minister stated that now that the main supporters of the Eritrean revolution had been defeated, it was an opportune time to crush the Eritrean revolution once and for all.

After this statement, the Ethiopian forces started the implementation of the "scorched earth" policy in 1967 using indiscriminate bombing of villages and killing civilians mainly in the lowlands and Muslim villages in the highlands. Even livestock were not spared and wells were poisoned. Asrate Kassa, the then Governor (Enderassie) of Eritrea oversaw the implementation. It was during this period the first wave of Eritrean refugees entered the Sudan. Some of those refugees still live in the same refugee camps, today.

During this period, the Ethiopian army committed grave atrocities, without the knowledge of the international community. The late Sabbe established that unit to attract world attention to what was going on in Eritrea. Ethiopian planes that were carrying soldiers and weapons to Eritrea were considered, legitimate targets.  The members of the Unit were selected from ELF foreign offices and included a 14 year old boy by the name Ahmed Amin Berhan. One of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leaders, the late Abu Iyad (Walid Nimir) personally supervised the training of the members in one of the PLO training camps.

Regarding highjacking of airplanes, the author states that it was the United States that was a pioneer in highjacking airplanes. He indicates  that the US planned and funded the high jacking of Cuban civilian and military airplanes, since 1958.  23 Cuban planes were high jacked and taken to the US. He claims that the US allowed the kidnappers to destroy or auction the highjacked airplanes. He further states the US abandoned the highjacking of Cuban airplanes only when the US planes highjacked and taken to Cuba were more than those high jacked by the US.

Other countries were also involved in highjacking of airplanes. In October 1956, France high jacked a Moroccan airplane where one of its passengers was the Algerian liberation leader, Ahmed Ben Bella, and his colleagues. He was imprisoned in Paris for six years.

Israel had a track record of hijacking, shooting down of civilian aircraft, or forcing them to land in its territory. This included a British plane where some of the passengers were Algerian officers which was forced to land in an Israeli Airport, Lod (now called Ben Gurion Airport).

The damage done to Ethiopian Airlines, by the Punishment Unit, was enormous. A number of airplanes were made out of service and the operations are estimated to have reduced passenger numbers to around 40%. The insurance companies refused to pay any compensation of losses as those were regarded due to sabotage that was not covered by insurance.
The first commando operation
 At about 8 pm on a Tuesday, the 11th  March 1969, an Ethiopian passenger plane, a Boeing 707, was destroyed at Frankfurt airport, Germany, as time bombs placed by the Fedayeen under the seats adjacent to the wings of the plane exploded. As a result the plane was divided into two parts. No one was hurt, as the timing was carefully planned. The passengers had left the plane and even cleaners in Frankfurt had finished their work and left the plane before denotation. The German newspaper, Suddeutsche Zeitung estimated the losses at DM 25 million

The incident generated worldwide attention. The Ethiopian Government, issued a statement, accusing Syria of masterminding the incident. Syria responded denying the Ethiopian allegations. Emperor Haile Selassie threatened to take to strong measures against Yemeni communities in Eritrea and Ethiopia. The Fedayeen who carried out the operation, were able to leave Frankfurt airport at lightning speed, due to prior arrangements have made it possible for them leave the targeted Ethiopian plane they boarded from Athens in Greece and left to West Berlin and later to East Berlin with forged Ethiopian passports and returned to their base safely. The two fighters who took part in the operation were: Mohamed Osman Yusuf Saig and Mohamed Ali Omar Afarorah.  

The second operation
On the 8th of June 1969, three members of the special unit destroyed an Ethiopian Airlinee Boeing 720 at Karachi Airport, Pakistan. The airplane had arrived there from Cairo on its way to New Delhi. The three militants infiltrated into the Karachi airport across the barbed wire surrounding it. The ammunition used in the attack was brought by Osman Sabbe to Karachi. Two of guerrilla fighters got into the plane and asked the remaining passengers and the crew to disembark and placed explosives of the plane. The plane was completely destroyed and its pieces spread in the airport. What made the effect of the explosions heavy was because the plane was being re-fuelled. The explosion covered a large area and threatened the destruction of other airplanes in the airport.
At the end of the operation, the three guerrilla fighters surrendered themselves and their weapons to authorities in Pakistan. They indicated that they were members of the ELF and had leaflets explaining the Ethiopian authorities’ atrocities in Eritrea.

On the 30th of June, 1969, they were brought to a Pakistani court which sentenced them to long term imprisonment and they were:
1. Ali Said Abdella, sentenced for 20 years (former Foreign Minister and died 2005)
2. Fisseha Abreha Fikak was sentenced for 23 year-old (He was earlier a member of Ethiopian Commandos who joined the ELF, he died not long after the event)
 3. Mohamed Idris Tilul who used to work in Saudi Arabia and had volunteered to train with other volunteers.

After the ruling of the court, The President of the Pakisatani Lawyers association and seven Pakistani lawyers volunteered to defend them. They explained to the court that they participants in the operation were guerrilla fighter who were members of the Eritrean Liberation Army that was fighting for a just cause and that the operation they conducted was politically motivated against Ethiopian occupation and against atrocities committed against the civilian population in Eritrea. The prison sentences were reduced to two years.

The Ethiopian Government had sent the Ethiopian State Minister, Seyoum Haregot (Eritrean, son of Haregot Abbay) who was married the granddaughter of the Emperor to Pakistan. He demanded the extradition of the three commando to the Ethiopian Government. Seyoum and his Ethiopian entourage stayed 10 days in Karachi but failed to achieve any results.

When the news of the arrest of the three Eritrea Fedayeen spread across Pakistan, the late Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto (when she was young) used to visit the Eritrean prisoners and brought them food. The prisoners did not know her identity until they were released after serving their sentence. They were able to return to their base safely by the help of the late Palestinian leader, Khelil El Wazir (Abu Jihad) who happened to be passing by Pakistan from China. He met the three Eritreans and asked the Palestinian representative in Pakistan then, Khalid Al Sheikh to provide all assistance to them.
The third operation which was most daring
On the day of 13th of September 1969, members of the unit highjacked an Ethiopian Airline plane that was travelling from Addis Ababa to Djibouti and forced it to land in Aden, Yemen. This incident which happened in Addis shock the Ethiopian security, in terms of place and its timing. Addis Ababa was preparing to receive the African Heads of State, during that period.  

Before the highjacking event, Members of the ELF in the Ethiopian capital succeeded in leaking a memorandum written by the ELF explaining to the Heads of States at the then Organization of African Unity (OAU) about the atrocities committed by the Ethiopian Government in Eritrea and asking them to discuss the Eritrean question. Every one was surprised when that memo was distributed to the Heads of States, at the Conference hall. In the memo, the ELF indicated that it will resort to all available means to pursue its legitimate struggle.

When the highjacked plane landed at the airport Aden and when one of the Eritrean Fedayeen was leaving the Cabin, an Ethiopian security in the plane shot and injured him. The Fedayyen exchanged fire with the security officer and injured him, but he was, himself, seriously injured. None of the passengers were hurt during the shootout. The hero of the whole operation was a 14 year old boy, Ahmed Amin Burhan, an Eritrean who was born and grew up in Somalia as his family had immigrated there, during the Italian occupation. His mission was transfer the weapons to be used in the operation through Khartoum to Addis. He accomplished that mission successfully. The other two were, Mohamed Saeed Salih Sengour, the leader of the group who was injured and Mohamed Saleh Yehlly.   

The fourth Operation
It took place on November 1969, and the aim was to highjack an Ethiopian Airline plane, a Boeing 720 that was on route from Madrid to Addis through Athens. The three Fedayeen arrived at Madrid Airport from Rome. While they were at the airport lounge, security officers at the airport were suspicious of a handbag that was with one of them. They searched the bag and found weapons in it and so he was arrested. The other two boarded the plane without knowing that their colleague was arrested in Madrid.

Ethiopia had tightened security at its airplanes. There were 12 security men at that plane, armed with rubber bullets. When the two Fedayeen boarded the plane, they found that some of front seats had cards on them that indicated they were reserved so that two persons could not sit together. When the plane took off, the security officers who had identified the Fedayeen, stabbed them with daggers and killed them. A Champagne was served to the passengers as a form of celebration. When the plane landed at Athens, the Airport authorities refused to arrest those involved, making an excuse that the murder did not take place at Greek territory and the plane was allowed to continue its journey to Addis. The two who were martyred at that operation were Ali Mohamed Omer and Hamid Shateen. Their colleague who was arrested in Spain for several years was Mahmoud Suleiman.

 The fifth attempt
Emperor Haile Selassie had planned to visit Italy in June in 1969. The Unit planned an operation in Italy to blow up the Ethiopian Embassy in Rome so as to prevent that visit from taking place and to attract the attention of the Italians to the Eritrean cause. The Unit member who was assigned to do this was Mohammed Saeed Berhatu, a 26-year old who was studying in Cairo during that period. The time bomb that he was fixing to use exploded, while he was preparing to leave the Hotel to carry out his assignment and he was killed. This was on the morning of June 20, 1969.

Other highjacking of Ethiopian planes that took place during that period:
 On 23 January, four Ethiopian students high jacked an Ethiopian Airlines plane that was on domestic flight and forced it to land at Benghazi airport, in Libya They stated that they were not members of the ELF, but high jacked the plane in protest to a massacre that the Ethiopian army carried out in Eritrea.  The ELF representative in Libya convinced the Libyan authorities to allow the students to travel to whatever destination they wanted to leave.

Another Ethiopian military plane was highjacked by its Eritrean pilot, Afworki Mengistu and was made to land at a military airport in northern Somalia. This was done in coordination with a clandestine cell of the ELF in Addis Ababa and Somali authorities. This event took place in November 1971.

The author of the book, states that the Ethiopian security services were trying to catch the mastermind of those highjackings and so the Ethiopian Airlines was made to hire one of the Middle East Airlines planes to operate in the Aden-Jeddah-Beirut route. The plane run with the Ethiopian Airlines Logo and staff. The Palestinian security uncovered the plot in time and warned Osman Sabbe and the ELF leadership not to use the Middle East Airlines, particularly on that route.

 Translated from Osman Denden’s book "The battle of Eritrea", in Arabic
This note was originally prepared by Hamid Idris Awate FB page, in Arabic   

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