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Terrorism: Ten Minutes of Horror

12 minute read
Ed Magnuson

Long lines of holiday travelers pushing heavily laden baggage carts were waiting in the main departure lounge of Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport. Hardly anyone paid much attention to four dark-complexioned young men who mingled with the crowd. One wore an expensive gray suit and camel’s hair topcoat. Two were in blue jeans and jackets, and had pulled scarves partly over their faces. The fourth sported a green beret. They were not traveling light: they carried 13 hand grenades and four AK-47 automatic rifles.

At 9:03 a.m., one of the men threw a grenade toward a nearby espresso bar and hamburger counter, where General Donato Miranda Acosta, the military attaché at the Mexican embassy in Rome, was sipping coffee with his secretary, Genoveva Jaime Cisneros, who was there to see him and his family off on a vacation trip to Frankfurt. Miranda Acosta and Cisneros were probably the first to be killed. Then the attackers raked the 820-ft.-long terminal with bullets, hitting people waiting for an E1 A1 flight and others at nearby TWA and Pan Am counters. The men jumped up and down in a frenzy, screaming as they fired, and security guards shot back. “People were falling all over the place,” recalled Anna Girometta, who operates a gift shop near the coffee bar. “It seemed to go on forever.” Five minutes later, the carnage was over. The toll: 15 people dead, including three of the terrorists, and 74 wounded.

At about the time that the shooting stopped at Leonardo da Vinci, three men in dirty pants and combat jackets ran up the steps to the second-floor departure area at Vienna’s Schwechat Airport. They opened fire with AK-47s. Passengers waiting to check in for E1 A1 Flight 364 to Tel Aviv threw themselves on the floor or leaped over ticket counters in panic. Police and E1 A1 security guards returned the fire, but the terrorists managed to get within 30 ft. of the counter. They rolled three hand grenades across the floor like bowling balls toward their victims.

Eckehard Kaerner, 50, an Austrian high school teacher headed for some vacation study in Israel, died of multiple wounds under a brightly lit Christmas tree near the E1 A1 counter. “Suddenly there was this terrible noise, not single shots but real explosions,” said a Viennese man who jumped behind a counter. “Three or four meters to my left, three people had fallen to the ground. There was a small child, all bloodied, its mother, who was also wounded, and a man who lay bleeding and seemed dead. To my right, another man had fallen and did not budge anymore.”

Within two minutes after the shooting began, the gunmen escaped down a flight of stairs and headed for an employee garage, where one of them pulled a knife on an airport official and commandeered his Mercedes-Benz. In a running gun battle with police, the terrorists tossed a grenade at a pursuing patrol car (it missed), and police bullets flattened a tire and pierced the gas tank of the Mercedes. Just two miles from the airport, the killers were stopped. The toll: three dead, including one of the terrorists, and 47 wounded.

In just ten terror-filled minutes last Friday, the civilized world was thus given yet another reminder of its vulnerability at the hands of suicidal terrorists, of the lethal instability that emanates from the Middle East and, finally, of life’s terrifying fragility. Responsibility for the attacks was claimed by a dissident Palestine Liberation Organization splinter group. The assaults touched off widespread debate about possible motives, about the Likelihood of Israeli retaliation, and about whether the massacres could have been prevented in the first place.

Interpol, the Paris-based anticrime organization, had warned early in December that terrorists, “probably of Arab origin,” might strike an airport during the Christmas holidays. Officials in a few West European countries had already taken precautions. At Rome’s airport, a balcony overlooking the ticket counters had been closed. Both the Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports outside Paris were being watched by extra squads of national police. Undercover detectives drifted among the crowds near check-in counters at London’s Heathrow. Every taxiing E1 A1 airliner at major European airports was trailed by armored cars carrying police with machine guns. Screening measures were in effect last week at Rome and Vienna, but to little avail: the massacres occurred well away from the passenger gates.

At Leonardo da Vinci, Daniela Simpson was outside the terminal walking the family dog while her husband Victor, the Associated Press news editor in Rome, was checking bags and obtaining boarding passes for the couple and their two children for a TWA flight to New York. “Suddenly there was a shattering noise . . . and two distinct machine-gun bursts,” recalled Mrs. Simpson, who reports in Rome as a TIME stringer. “And then silence. I rushed in to screams and cries, and saw my husband dripping blood from his hand and my son on the floor, shot in the stomach. They were O.K., but I lost my daughter.” Simpson had dropped on top of his two children when the firing began. Michael, 9, survived, but Natasha, 11, was dead on arrival at a local hospital.

Also killed in the terminal was John Buonocore, 20, an exchange student from Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College, who was about to return from a semester’s study in Rome. Three other Americans failed to survive their airport wounds and died in hospitals. They were Don Maland, 30, a native New Yorker who had been working for Ford Aerospace in Cairo; Frederick Gage, 29, a member of the board of Capital Times Co. in Madison, Wis., and Elena Tomarello, 67, a returning vacationer from North Naples, Fla.

As the firing subsided, one of the terrorists, fatally wounded by security officers, flashed a V-for-victory sign with his fingers, then died. Another of the killers dropped to the floor and pretended to be a victim. When the shooting stopped completely, he began to crawl slowly away. Then he broke into a run. “Catch him, catch him!” several passengers yelled. A policeman overtook him and stopped him with a punch to the jaw.

While E1 A1 appeared to be the target of both attacks, the terrorists in Rome evidently did not much care whom they hit. In addition to the five Americans, the victims included at least three Greeks, two Mexicans, one Algerian and two men whose nationalities were not known.

The terrorists in Rome carried no identity papers. But police determined that one of the slain gunmen was only 15 years old. The lone survivor, shot in the arm and shoulder, was too seriously wounded to be thoroughly questioned. He gave his name as Mohammed Sharam, 19, claimed to have been born in Lebanon’s Shatila camp, and declared, “I am a Palestine fighter.” Blood tests showed that he had taken amphetamines, and police believed that some of the attackers had been high on the drug. Investigators traced a currency-exchange receipt from a Rome bank in the possession of one of the attackers and discovered, as Interpol had predicted, that he had been traveling on a Moroccan passport.

A note was found on one of the Rome assailants. Written in Arabic and addressed to “Zionists,” it said in part: “As you have violated our land, our honor, our people, we in exchange will violate everything, even your children, to make you feel the sadness of our children. The tears we have shed will be exchanged for blood. The war started from this moment.” It was signed, “The martyrs of Palestine.”

None of the three Vienna attackers carried identification either. But Austrian police were able to determine their names and ages: Abdel Aziz Merzoughi, 25; Ben Ahmed Chaoval, 25; and Mongi Ben Ab-dollah Saadqoui, 26. One of the two who were captured replied to questions in Arabic and claimed that he came from Lebanon. Wounded in the abdomen, he is expected to survive. The other was struck in the thorax and was in a coma. Austrian police said that all three were Arabs.

Hours after the assaults, a man speaking in Arabic-accented Spanish called a radio station in Málaga, Spain, and claimed that both attacks had been carried out by the “Abu Nidal organization.” Officials in Italy, Austria, Israel and the U.S. all took the claim seriously. Abu Nidal is the code name used by Sabry Khalil Bana, 45, who quit Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization in 1973, contending that Arafat had softened his opposition to Israel. Abu Nidal, in turn, was condemned to death by the P.L.O. Interviewed by Arab reporters recently in Libya, where he reportedly established a headquarters a few months ago for his Fatah Revolutionary Council, Abu Nidal has also been a frequent visitor to Iraq and Syria.

Described by a high Bonn official as “a thug and an international gangster and pirate,” Abu Nidal reportedly operates less for ideology than to gain notoriety and money from others who hire his services. After leaving Arafat, he led his council on numerous terrorist attacks. He is believed to have organized assaults on synagogues in Rome, Paris and Vienna. His council has also been linked to the 1982 shooting in London of Israeli Ambassador Shlomo Argov, an incident that touched off Israel’s invasion of Lebanon that year; the 1983 murder in Lisbon of Issam Sartawi, a top Arafat aide; and the hijacking last November of an EgyptAir jetliner to Malta, where 60 people died.

The P.L.O. quickly denied that it had anything to do with last week’s airport assaults. Arafat in November denounced terrorist activities outside Israeli-occupied territory. But in Tel Aviv, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin claimed that the newest attacks showed that “the Palestinian terrorist organizations are trying to reach us and harm us wherever they can.” Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Avi Pazner warned that “Israel will continue its struggle against terrorism in every place and at any time that it sees fit.”

There was little doubt that Israel would strike back. The only real questions were how soon and against what targets.

“You bet the Israelis are going to retaliate,” observed a top-ranking U.S. intelligence official. “It was an attack aimed against them, and they will not let this go by.” One possible target is Abu Nidal’s main base at Tripoli, Libya. He is also reported to have a base on the outskirts of Damascus. A retaliatory raid there would seriously challenge the Syrian air force.

Israel last week accused Syria’s President Haffez Assad of replacing Soviet SA-6 and SA-8 antiaircraft missiles in Lebanon. Syria had deployed such weapons there in 1981, only to have them destroyed by the Israelis during their 1982 invasion. The redeployment into Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley was made late in November after Israeli war planes had shot down two Syrian jets over Syria. An Israeli army spokesman disclosed the missile move publicly on Dec. 15. Other Israeli officials contended that the U.S. had secretly persuaded Assad to withdraw them. Assad did so but, showing his muscle in the region, abruptly sent the weapons back into the Bekaa just two days later. That move was announced by Peres. The impasse led Defense Minister Rabin to declare ominously, “Israel will reserve to itself the ways, the means and the time to cope with this problem.” Israel thus seemed poised to deal with both the missiles and the terrorist attacks, perhaps simultaneously.

Another coincidence complicated the retaliation possibilities. Assad had invited Jordan’s King Hussein to meet with him in Damascus early this week, the first such get-together in six years. The two have been feuding since 1980, partly over the Camp David peace plan. Some Western diplomats believe that Hussein was willing to go to Damascus to try to preserve his role in the process, which has been stalled by Arafat’s refusal to recognize Israel. By meeting with Assad, who has ties with anti-Arafat P.L.O. dissidents, Hussein may hope to prod Arafat into a compromise. Assad, however, seems determined to block any agreement among Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians. The Israelis, clearly nervous about the meeting, had to weigh the impact that any retaliatory strike into Lebanon or Syria might have on the two leaders. The consequences could be unpredictable and serious, but after last week’s terror, no one could rule out such a strike.

The airport terrorism was especially unsettling to Italy and Austria, which have developed relatively good relations with the P.L.O. in recent years. In addition, the tactic of shooting up an airport area that anyone can enter without going through personal and baggage screening troubled officials who supervise airport security. “We can move passenger check-ins further away from airports,” said Vienna’s Lord Mayor Helmut Zilk. “But we can’t keep them secret.”

Even more worrisome was the possibility that the latest assaults will touch off additional violence. As Michael Simpson, 9, was carried into a Rome hospital last week in a state of near shock, he kept repeating, “It will never end. It will never end.” He was, of course, referring to the horrible ordeal he had just endured. But he could just as easily have been describing the inevitable cycle of terror and retaliation that has come to characterize politics in the Middle East. –By Ed Magnuson. Reported by Walter Galling/Rome and Gertraud Lessing/Vienna

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