Air Force Chief Says Pilot May Be Held In Syria
JERUSALEM (AP) _ The chief of Israel’s air force said Sunday that an Israeli aviator whose warplane crashed in southern Lebanon last week was captured by guerrillas and may have been handed over to Syria.
Maj. Gen. Amos Lapidot also said the plane, an F4-E Phantom fighter-bomber, was not shot down by a rocket, but crashed because a malfunction set off one of its bombs.
He said the U.S. Air Force has experienced similar malfunctions with about 10 planes of that model.
Lebanese police and Lebanon’s Shiite Moslem Amal militia have said the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.
The plane crashed Thursday near the Lebanese port city of Sidon after taking part in raids against what Israel said were Palestinian guerrilla bases. A second aviator aboard the plane was quickly rescued by Israeli helicopters.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shimon Peres said police had arrested a squad of Moslem fundamentalists who were responsible for last week’s grenade attack in Jerusalem that killed one man and injured 69 people, and prompted the Israeli raid near Sidon.
Peres told Israel Television that the Moslems were from Silwan and Abu Tor villages outside Jerusalem, and had been recruited in Jordan last year by the Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The men were carrying weapons and ammunition when arrested, Peres said. He gave no further details.
Lapidot told reporters the captured aviator was in the hands of a guerrilla group, but did not name the group.
″We have no certainty that he has not been handed over to the Syrians,″ Lapidot said. ″We know there are ties and relationships between various Palestinian and Lebanese groups and the Syrians.″
Lapidot’s comments marked the first public Israeli acknowledgement that the airman had been captured. On Saturday, he was still listed as missing in action, and military officials said every effort was being made to find him.
Amal leader Nabih Berri said Saturday he would seek to swap the captive for Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in Israel. Berri, who also is Lebanon’s justice minister, refused to say, however, whether the airman was being held by his fighters.
Berri made the comments after meeting with Syrian leaders in Damascus.
A military official said Sunday that Israel did not know if the airman was being held by Amal. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with military regulations.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin briefed the full Cabinet on the air strike and efforts to track down the aviator, said Cabinet Secretary Yossi Bellin.
Israel Radio said Lapidot and the head of military intelligence also talked to the ministers. No details were made public.
Peres praised the helicopter rescue of the second airman as a ″brilliant and courageous action,″ Bellin said.
Peres addressed the Cabinet for the last time as prime minister. He is due to switch jobs Monday with Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir in a power-sharing agreement between the Labor Party and the Likud bloc.
Five Palestinian groups, including Fatah, claimed responsibility for the bombing last Wednesday near Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. Four people were killed and 10 injured in the Israeli air raid that followed.
Palestinian nationalists distributed leaflets Sunday in the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River, hailing the loss of the Israeli plane and the Jerusalem attack.