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The World: Terror and Triumph at Mogadishu

10 minute read

After a 110-hour ordeal, a dramatic eleven-minute rescue

In the early afternoon of Oct. 13, Lufthansa air control in Frankfurt sent a terse message to all planes in the Mediterranean area: “Keep us posted with every piece of information you get.” Listening to his short-wave set in his Tel Aviv apartment, Israeli Radio-TV Reporter Michael Gurdus immediately guessed that a Lufthansa jet had been hijacked. For the next five days, Gurdus recorded the remarkable radio traffic between Germany, the Middle East and Africa as Flight 181—designated Charlie Echo —flew precariously on to Rome, Cyprus, Bahrain, Dubai, Aden, and finally to Mogadishu, pursued by two other German aircraft. One carried Bonn’s chief negotiator; both planes carried commandos. Gurdus’ transcripts, made available exclusively to TIME, offer revealing details of the year’s most dramatic rescue.

At 2 p.m., one hour out of Palma, Majorca, Flight 181’s captain, Jurgen Schumann, first reported that his plane had been commandeered by terrorists over the French Riviera. The leader of the group screamed into the open radio that he was “Captain Walter Mahmud” and that the craft was now under his “supervision and control.” Lufthansa’s immediate problem was keeping track of the plane, a Boeing 737 twin jet bound for Frankfurt. It had only a short-range VHP transmitter for intra-European communication and was unable to keep contact with Frankfurt.

During the first refueling stop, at Rome, Schumann casually dropped four unlit cigars out the cockpit window. Authorities correctly interpreted this signal to mean that four terrorists were aboard. Other Lufthansa flights were able to contact Charlie Echo and pass along messages from Frankfurt control. Near Greece, a Lufthansa pilot reported that Charlie Echo was preparing to land at Nicosia in Cyprus. Back came an urgent message, “Here is Frankfurt. Establish contact with 181 and let him know that Nicosia—out of order, repeat out of order. He should try for Larnaca or Akrotiri.” When the plane touched down at Larnaca a heavily accented voice took over and declared in English, “Here is Captain Mahmud. Refuel the plane. If you will not refuel, I will blow the plane.”

“Captain Mahmud,” replied the control tower, “here is the Foreign Minister of Cyprus. I beg you in the name of the Cypriot government and people, and in the name of humanity, release all children, women and sick people on board. Please.” Then came another voice from the tower: “I am the representative of the Palestinian Liberation Movement in Cyprus. Do you hear me, Captain Mahmud?” Mahmud shouted back: “I do not care who you are! Whoever you are, I do not want to talk to you!”

In Bonn, West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, backed by his Cabinet and by opposition leaders, alerted Grenzschutzgruppe 9 (G.S.G. 9), the elite commando unit of West Germany’s Border Protection Force. Thirty members of the unit left immediately for Cyprus aboard a Lufthansa 707, Flight 1231. But Flight 1231, in a near miss, arrived at Larnaca just as Flight 181 was taking off. Flight 1231 flew to Ankara to await further instructions, while the hijacked plane flew on to Bahrain and Dubai.

Schmidt also sent his chief troubleshooter, State Secretary Hans-Jürgen Wischnewski, 55, to the Middle East. Aboard Wischnewski’s 707—code-named Oscar X Ray—were 31 additional troops of G.S.G. 9 as well as the unit’s commander, Ulrich Wegener. At dawn Saturday, Wischnewski reached Dubai and went to the control tower to talk with the hijackers by radio; he had no success.

Among the European leaders who called Schmidt to offer their support as well as their sympathy was British Prime Minister James Callaghan; Schmidt gladly accepted the offer. Accordingly, the British provided the West Germans with 1) special, highly sensitive listening devices for locating the terrorists within the plane and 2) a supply of British “stun grenades,” which explode without scattering metal fragments, but can immobilize an enemy for about six seconds with their sound and flash. The stun grenades—along with two experts from Britain’s crack Special Air Service regiment—were soon en route to Dubai.

On Saturday, Frankfurt instructed Flight 1231, still waiting in Ankara: “Fly back to Cologne. This is an order from the Interior Minister.” The commandos returned to West Germany and left again a day later on another 707, code-named Uniform Bravo. This time they flew to Crete to await further orders.

In Dubai, Wischnewski persuaded Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Mak-tum, Defense Minister of the United Arab Emirates, to permit a rescue operation on his territory. After considerable argument, Wischnewski agreed reluctantly to the sheik’s insistence that his own troops be allowed to participate. Disguised as mechanics, the commandos scouted the aircraft and helped put aboard food, water, medicine, and even a birthday cake for one of the stewardesses, Annemarie Staringer, 28. Hijackers and hostages shared the cake in what passengers later said was the only moment of cordiality during the five-day ordeal.

On Sunday morning, only 40 minutes before the first of the terrorists’ several deadlines for exploding the plane, Charlie Echo took off unexpectedly. It headed first for the island of Masirah, 20 miles off the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, but the Sultanate of Oman refused to allow it to land. For at least two hours after that, nobody in the area was sure of the plane’s whereabouts. “Do you know where it is?” Aden asked Saudi Arabia, which replied: “We lost him.” In fact, Charlie Echo had headed for Aden, capital of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (Southern Yemen), with a ten-minute supply of fuel left. This time the skyjackers refused to take no for an answer when they asked to land. “We are coming in,” shouted Mahmud at the Aden tower. “I repeat, we are coming in.”

Oscar X Ray headed for Aden in pursuit, but it too was refused permission to land. Bonn advised Wischnewski to try to buy his way in: “Reach the Southern Yemen authorities. If landing permission given, clarify that negotiations will include development plans for Southern Yemen. Major development plans and funds for Yemen. Did you understand?” Southern Yemen still refused, and Wischnewski flew on to Jidda in Saudi Arabia. Before landing he received another urgent message from Schmidt: “The minister [Wischnewski] has a free hand in all the negotiations with all countries. Is that clear?” This may have been a coded advisory that West Germany had made the final decision to use force against the terrorists.

The hijackers’ most shocking act of savagery had already taken place in Aden. Because the Aden authorities had blocked the airport runway with fire trucks, Captain Schumann landed on an adjacent stretch of sand. After considerable argument, he convinced the terrorists that he should leave the plane to examine the nosewheel, which had been slightly damaged during the landing. When he climbed back aboard, Mahmud confronted him in a towering rage. “Are you guilty or not guilty?” he yelled, forcing the pilot at gunpoint to kneel at the head of the cabin aisle. Then Mahmud placed a pistol in Schumann’s face and killed him with one bullet. After that, one passenger said later, “we didn’t have any hope left.”

Next morning, with Co-Pilot Jürgen Victor, 35, at the controls, Charlie Echo flew on to Mogadishu, capital of Somalia. It was followed by Wischnewski’s plane from Jidda. For a full hour, Chancellor Schmidt talked by telephone with Somalia’s President Siad Barre, who finally agreed to permit a rescue operation to take place. Both Bonn and Mogadishu have denied reports that the Germans gave Somalia cash or promised assistance. But the Somalis, involved in a desert war with Ethiopia (TIME, Oct. 24), unquestionably need military aid.

Meanwhile, the German 707 with the second contingent of G.S.G. 9 men aboard took off from Crete. “This is Uniform Bravo, airborne over Egyptian territory,” the captain told Frankfurt. “Got clearance to fly southward.” Frankfurt replied: “Urgent that you reach Mogadishu airport as soon as possible. Rush your flight plan to Somalia. Do not waste time.” A short time later, Frankfurt reversed itself and asked Uniform Bravo to slow down and see if it could land at Djibouti for a while. Uniform Bravo then reported that Djibouti was “asking too many questions we cannot answer,” so Frankfurt ordered: “Keep holding over the area.” Four hours passed before Frankfurt sent the vital message to Uniform Bravo: “Fly to Mogadishu. Make landing after dark and avoid using inside lights. Your new identification is Juliet Kilo 66.” Presumably, this code-name change was a way of telling the commandos to prepare to attack.

Throughout the early evening, telephone lines to Europe were open, so the Lufthansa planes were on the air to Frankfurt only for radio checks. But these checks became more and more frequent as the hours passed: from every 30 minutes to 20, then ten and finally two. Shortly after midnight Frankfurt told the planes: “We have lost all telephone and telex connections. You are our only means of communication. Keep in touch.”

During that period, the behavior of the hijackers became increasingly erratic and menacing as another deadline approached. At one point, they tied the hostages’ hands behind their backs with stockings and doused them with the remaining liquor aboard, apparently to help fuel the flames if they set the plane afire. The terrorists later untied the hostages, after being told by a West German diplomat in the control tower that Bonn would release eleven prisoners and fly them to Mogadishu. Mahmud consulted his “committee” and agreed to put off the deadline once more, this time until 2:30 a.m. Tuesday. “It is seven hours’ flying time from Germany,” he told the passengers. “I will give them seven hours.” He advised the tower: “Don’t try any tricks. This will not be another Entebbe.”

But it was. Forty minutes before the terrorists’ final deadline, the G.S.G. 9 rescue operation began. While two of the terrorists were in the cockpit talking with the German diplomat in the control tower, 28 commandos—their faces blackened and bodies camouflaged—stealthily approached the hijacked plane. Suddenly, there was an explosion on the runway—a diversion, and a signal for the attack. Smashing the emergency exits and blowing open the main doors with special explosives, the rescuers lobbed their stun grenades into the cabin. “Hinlegen! Hinlegen!” (Lie down! Lie down!) they shouted as they streamed aboard.

From Wischnewski’s plane 500 yards away, his pilot described the scene to Frankfurt in a running narrative. “This is Oscar X Ray. I can see the doors of the plane are open and the guys are entering the plane.” Frankfurt headquarters: “O.K., go ahead.”

In Tel Aviv, Ham Operator Gurdus sat huddled before his set.* In Bonn, a member of Schmidt’s crisis group recalled later, “You could have heard a speck of dust move.”

“The emergency doors are open now, and I can see six, seven, eight hostages rushing from the plane … They are running toward the control tower … Thirty-five, thirty-six hostages are out. Cars are picking them up … More hostages. The guys have control of the plane. The doors are closed. It is over. The operation is over.”

Frankfurt said calmly: “The Chancellor would like to know how many casualties there are.”

“Please wait. Will come with the number.” Minutes later: “Frankfurt, here is Oscar X Ray. Three terrorists killed, one badly wounded.” Mahmud and two others had been killed outright; the fourth, a woman, suffered a thigh wound and was taken to a Mogadishu hospital. One commando, one stewardess and four passengers were slightly injured. Except for the murdered Captain Schumann, all the hostages survived.

“Copied O.K.,” Frankfurt replied. That was it; there was no fanfare. The next radio instructions simply ordered the plane to return to Germany.

*A news agency reported earlier that an Israeli, monitoring radio messages, had learned that commandos had landed in Mogadishu. Bonn asked that the report be withheld. Luckily, the hijackers were obviously unaware of it.

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