Yasser Arafat, in a manner befitting his melodramatic career as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, walked away from a plane crash in the desert that killed three of his crew members and, for several tense hours early Wednesday, left his followers trembling with uncertainty.
Arafat was taken to a hospital after a Libyan search team found him walking around the plane’s wreckage in barren and rugged terrain 45 miles from the town of Sarra in Libya’s southern Sahara region. “He has a few scratches on his face, maybe some bruises, that’s all,” said Farouk Kaddoumi, the PLO’s foreign minister, who spoke with Arafat by phone Wednesday afternoon.
Palestinian officials in Libya said a Libyan air force plane spotted Arafat’s aircraft at dawn. “He looked fine. His first words to us were, ‘Thank God, thank God,’ ” Khalid Shihada Mohammed, a Palestinian doctor who was with the rescue team, told the British news agency Reuters.
Libyan television showed footage of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi at Arafat’s bedside in a hospital in the city of Misratah, about 12 miles east of Tripoli, the Libyan capital. No details on his injuries were made public. Arafat’s right eye was bandaged, but he appeared to be in good spirits, smiling and conversing with Kadafi and other visitors.
“I’m well, and thanks to all,” Arafat said in a message to PLO headquarters.
When news of his survival reached the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinians celebrated by blowing car horns, tossing confetti and candy in the air and shouting PLO slogans. Israeli soldiers broke up several demonstrations, wounding at least nine revelers.
Arafat, 62, was traveling from Sudan to Tunis, where the PLO maintains its headquarters in exile, by way of Libya. His Soviet-built Antonov 26 transport plane ran into a sudden sandstorm and was unable to locate a landing spot. The crew tried to backtrack but could not reach an alternate destination, and, running out of fuel, the plane made a wheels-up crash landing in the dark.
The cockpit was smashed, killing the three crew members--two Palestinians and a Romanian. Arafat and about a dozen other passengers, mostly bodyguards, were sitting in the fuselage, which held together. Two other crew members were injured.
Arafat is expected to arrive in Tunis today for a meeting of the PLO’s 80-member Central Council. Amid the celebrations over his survival, the meeting may still be a tense affair, since there have been calls for him to relinquish some power in the financially strapped and diplomatically crippled organization.
The PLO leader is under fire for his backing of Iraq during the Persian Gulf War. His stance, accompanied by his frequent public embraces of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, alienated PLO bankrollers in the rich oil states along the Persian Gulf. It also eroded the PLO’s standing among Western countries, some of which were beginning to alter their perceptions of it as a purely terrorist organization.
Meanwhile, hard-liners in the PLO think Arafat has betrayed the Palestinian cause by being willing to sit down with Israel in peace talks and tacitly recognize the Jewish state’s existence after years of withholding such recognition.
There is no clear candidate to succeed Arafat, who has headed the PLO for more than 23 years. That potential vacuum is one of the causes of complaint against his leadership. “God has spared the Palestinians from a political disaster,” said a PLO representative in Lebanon.
Two top Arafat associates have been assassinated during the past four years, thinning out the pool of potential successors. In 1988, Israeli commandos infiltrated a beachfront Tunis neighborhood and killed Khalil Wazir, who was responsible for long-range coordination of the uprising against Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Political adviser Salah Kalaf was killed by the rival Abu Nidal faction in early 1991, also in Tunis.
Word of Arafat’s disappearance set off rumors that he, too, had been liquidated by one of his many enemies. Arafat’s supporters consider him the glue for the fractious organization.
“We lived difficult hours,” Kaddoumi said dryly of the period when his leader was missing.
In desperation, the PLO went so far as to request American satellite help to locate the remains of Arafat’s Soviet-built plane. The request was relayed to Washington by former President Jimmy Carter.
Said Kamal, the PLO representative in Cairo, expressed thanks to France, Italy and the United States for help he said they offered, including satellite photography, the Associated Press reported.
But State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said in Washington, “We were not involved in any effort to help locate the plane.”
The United States broke off direct contact with the PLO in 1989 after a botched Palestinian attack on an Israeli beach near Tel Aviv. Since early last year, however, Secretary of State James A. Baker III has maintained close contact with pro-PLO leaders in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. He promoted the contacts in order to get Middle East peace talks off the ground. PLO officials have been overseeing negotiations by West Bank and Gaza Palestinians with the Israelis.
While continually failing to gain an independent homeland for the Palestinians, Arafat nonetheless has built a reputation for landing on his feet. It is a reputation that has no doubt been enhanced by this latest escape.
Arafat won notoriety for surviving a brief tank battle with Israeli forces in 1968. He also survived a bitter 1970 conflict with Jordan, where the PLO maintained an exile base until it was expelled by King Hussein. He escaped an Israeli effort to assassinate him from the air during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and a year later he fled Syria’s campaign to oust him from leadership of the Palestinian cause.
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this article.