Six Hostages Held by Radical Faction : ‘We’d Be Dead’ in Rescue Effort, Pilot Cautions
With a terrorist brandishing a pistol behind him, the exhausted pilot still on board a hijacked TWA jetliner warned Wednesday that he, his crew and 37 other American hostages in Beirut would “all be dead men” if a rescue attempt were made.
Capt. John L. Testrake and two remaining crewmen on the grounded Boeing 727 talked with three ABC-TV reporters on the sixth day of the crisis as Shia Muslims held their passengers in secret locations around Beirut.
One of about 12 gunmen aboard the red-and-white jet fired six or seven rifle shots from the left front door shortly before the ABC interview to keep other journalists away. The plane was seized nearly a week ago and has been on the ground in Beirut since Sunday.
‘Many, Many Guards’
Testrake, 57, of Richmond, Mo., was asked whether he thought the United States should mount a military rescue attempt. As a hijacker brandished a pistol behind him, the pilot said, “I think we’d all be dead men if they did, because we are continuously surrounded by many, many guards.”
Testrake added: “We’re OK. It’s a wait-and-see situation.” He smiled and spoke calmly.
In an aircraft-to-tower interview later, the pilot repeated his assessment of a rescue operation: “There are many men in this aircraft, and it’s not any better a plan than it was before.”
He said he and the other crewmen are “in excellent condition. They have been treating us quite well. We have plenty of food and water.”
When Testrake was asked what he thought would happen, the gunman broke in and shouted: “Control tower! Control tower! Finish! It’s over!”
Asked what the hijackers intend to do with the plane and the crew, the gunman said: “We’ll talk about that later! I’m busy now! We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. . . . I hope we will get what we want.”
Would journalists be allowed on the plane? “Never! That is impossible!”
Testrake sent this message to his family in the ABC interview:
“I would like for my wife and my family and all my friends back in Missouri to know that the Lord has taken very good care of us, and He’s seen us through some very trying times, and He’ll see us through to the end.”
The gunman then thrust his hand out of the cockpit window, waved a pistol and pulled Testrake back.
Soon afterward, co-pilot Philip G. Maresca of Salt Lake City and flight engineer Benjamin C. Zimmermann of Cascade, Ida., were brought to the window separately for brief comments.
The same gunman then returned to the window, pointed his gun toward the ABC crew and shouted: “Go! Go! Go away!”
Carrying 153 people, TWA Flight 847 was seized Friday by two Shia gunmen just after takeoff from Athens on a flight to Rome. They forced the pilot to shuttle between Beirut and Algiers before landing in Beirut on Sunday for a third time.
One hostage, an American sailor, was shot and killed by the hijackers, but they released all but 40 of the other captives.
There was no word on the conditions of the American passengers who were whisked off the plane under cover of darkness Sunday night and taken to secret locations in the Lebanese capital.
Believed Held by Amal
The bulk of them are believed being held by the Shia Muslim militia Amal, headed by Nabih Berri. But in Washington, national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane said Wednesday that at least six of the hostages--believed singled out for their “Jewish-sounding names"--are being held by Hezbollah, a more extreme Shia faction strongly influenced by Iran.
Berri, who is also justice minister in Lebanon’s nominal central government, said Tuesday that he has taken responsibility for the hostages.
But while Berri figures prominently in the crisis, Lebanese President Amin Gemayel has maintained a low profile. He has said nothing about the hijacking, and it is an indication of his lack of power that nobody is known to have asked him to join negotiations to free the hostages, and nobody has appealed for his intervention.
Gemayel, 43, a Christian, apparently is content to remain out of the picture. His government is weak, its power eroded by factionalism. It is unable to halt fighting in the capital or to control the armed militias that have, in effect, turned the country into a series of enclaves.
But while Gemayel has avoided public involvement in the crisis, Berri has become the pivotal figure in negotiations, conducting news conferences and consulting by telephone with McFarlane.
The Gemayel government has no power in mostly Muslim West Beirut, where it is believed at least some of the hostages are being held in small groups.
Meanwhile, the government of Cyprus said Wednesday that it will not allow anyone to use its main airport--in Larnaca, 125 miles northwest of Beirut--to launch a military operation to rescue the hostages.
The U.S. anti-terrorist Delta Force was reportedly sent to the Mediterranean earlier in the crisis, and there has been speculation in Cyprus that the force is at the British airbase at Akrotiri on the west coast of the island.