Egypt Puts Its Forces on Alert Against Libya

Times Staff Writer

Egypt, apparently convinced that Libya is behind the hijacking of an Egyptian airliner to Malta, put its armed forces on heightened alert Sunday and sent reinforcements toward the Libyan border, official sources said.

The military mobilization, not officially announced but confirmed by government and diplomatic sources, began before Egyptian commandos stormed the hijacked jetliner in the Maltese capital of Valletta. In the resulting bloodbath, most of the passengers aboard the plane were killed or wounded and all the hijackers died, according to reports from Malta.

‘All Passengers Saved’

Shortly after the storming of the EgyptAir jetliner by the commandos, who were flown to Malta from Cairo earlier in the day, Egyptian television interrupted its normal programming to announce that the hijackers had been killed and “all the passengers saved without any loss to Egyptian troops.”


However, reports from U.S. and Maltese officials later said that as the commandos stormed the Boeing 737, the hijackers--numbering as many as six, by various accounts--detonated grenades inside the cabin, causing heavy casualties among the passengers.

Further Embarrassment

The Egyptian media did not immediately report those details, and government officials were not available for comment. But Western diplomats said they thought the outcome would prove to be a further embarrassment for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose position suffered a setback last month because of his handling of another terrorist episode--the one involving the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro.

But the diplomats added that the crisis with Libya might deflect or at least delay some of the criticism likely to result from heavy loss of life caused by the commandos’ attempt to save the hostages, who included several Americans and Israelis in addition to Egyptians, Greeks and nationals of several other countries.

Mubarak held a crisis session with his Cabinet earlier in the day, and Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid told reporters afterward that “appropriate measures” to deal with the hijacking had been decided upon. He did not elaborate, but hours later several key highways were closed to civilian traffic, and security sources reported that a military mobilization was under way.

Military officials refused to discuss the mobilization, but various reports from official sources, diplomats and witnesses suggested that it was significantly larger than a similar alert declared along the Libyan border last year.

Although no figures were disclosed, there were reports of large-scale troop movements along the major desert roads leading southwest from Cairo, in the direction of the Libyan border, and also northward from the capital.


Egypt has not yet publicly accused Libya of being behind the hijacking, but officials said that the government strongly suspects Libya’s leader, Col. Moammar Kadafi, and, through diplomatic channels, has already privately accused him of masterminding the attack.

The officials would not disclose the reasons for the suspicion except to cite what appeared to be circumstantial evidence.

They noted, for instance, that while the hijackers claimed to be Egyptians, monitored radio conversations between them and the airport control tower in Malta suggested that they spoke in non-Egyptian “North African” accents.

More than two dozen of the 86 passengers originally on the hijacked flight boarded the plane in Athens via a connecting flight from Libya, and the terrorists were said to be traveling on Moroccan passports, which, according to intelligence sources, Libya is believed to have forged.

Finally, the sources said, Egypt has been expecting a “revenge” attack by Libya ever since security forces foiled a Libyan attempt to assassinate former Libyan Prime Minister Abdel-Hamid Bakoush near Alexandria on Nov. 6.

A previous Libyan attempt to kill Bakoush in November of last year prompted Egypt to declare a similar alert along its 800-mile-long border with Libya. In July, 1977, a series of incidents along the Egyptian-Libyan frontier spiraled into a four-day border war in which Libya was said to have sustained heavy casualties.


Since then, Egyptian military alerts along the border have been staged periodically as protective measures or as warnings to Libya. However, this time diplomatic and other sources said they could not rule out the possibility of at least some form of limited Egyptian military retaliation across the border.

Although Egyptian officials said the identity of the hijackers remained unknown, they added that another reason to suspect Libya stemmed from reports that the hijackers had identified themselves as members of Egypt Revolution, a group that has claimed responsibility for several terrorist attacks inside Egypt, including the assassination of an Israeli diplomat in Cairo last Aug. 20.

In letters to the news media, the group has described itself as a “nationalist movement” opposed to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. However, Egyptian security officials have said they believe that the group does not exist as such and that the name is a cover for “foreign elements” trying to destabilize Egypt. Libya and Syria have variously been mentioned as possible supporters of the group.

“It is quite clear that the hijackers are not Egyptians,” government spokesman Ahmed Shodi said. “They are just using the name as a slogan. Maybe they are people backed by Libya or Syria, but we don’t know at this point.”

The U.S. government was in close contact with Egyptian officials throughout the day.

“There is better coordination between the governments concerned this time around,” a Western diplomat said, alluding to the diplomatic dispute that strained relations between the two countries when U.S. planes intercepted an EgyptAir jetliner flying the Palestinian hijackers of the Achille Lauro out of Egypt.

The Achille Lauro affair deeply embarrassed Mubarak because of allegations that he tried to deceive the United States into thinking the hijackers had left Egypt when they were still in Egyptian custody.


The seizure of the Egyptian plane carrying the hijackers was also deeply humiliating to Egypt, and diplomatic sources said it would have helped Mubarak to have successfully ended the Malta hijacking, which represented the second time Egyptian troops have stormed a captive airliner.

The first time, in 1977, also ended in heavy loss of life, when Cypriot troops opened fire on an Egyptian force trying to storm a hijacked plane on the ground in Cyprus, killing 15 soldiers and wounding at least 12.