Israel Intercepts Lebanese Plane, Questions Pilots
BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Israeli warplanes intercepted a Lebanese air force plane over the Mediterranean on Thursday, forced it to land in Israel and interrogated the two crewmen.
The plane, a Fouga-Magister training and reconnaissance craft, and crew were allowed to return to Lebanon four hours later.
The plane was assisting in the rescue of a sinking boat off Lebanon’s southern port city of Sidon when it was intercepted and forced to fly to Israel, the Lebanese army command said.
Sidon is 25 miles south of Beirut and 37 miles north of the Israeli border.
In Tel Aviv, an Israeli military source said the plane was intercepted after it flew over Tyre, only 14 miles from Israel.
″From there, it’s a one-minute flight to Israel, and it was not clear what the pilots planned to do,″ the source said when asked why the aircraft was intercepted. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
State-run Beirut radio said the plane returned to Lebanon and landed at Halat air force base in the Christian heartland north of Beirut.
The broadcast said the two pilots, Halat base commander Maj. Khalil Mattar and co-pilot Capt. Samir Malouli, were in ″good shape.″
They made no public statements after their return. It was the first time Israel has intercepted a Lebanese air force plane.
An Israeli military spokesman, who asked not to be named in keeping with military regulations, said the Lebanese pilots were questioned about the circumstances of their approach to the Israeli border, given lunch and fuel and then released.
There were conflicting reports about the identity of the boat off Sidon that radioed distress signals saying it was sinking.
Military sources in Beirut said it was a fishing boat with five men aboard. But other sources said it was a yacht carrying Christian militiamen from Israel’s self-proclaimed ″security zone″ in south Lebanon to Beirut’s Christian sector.
The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said all aboard the boat were picked up by Israeli gunboats and taken to an undisclosed destination. There was no word on the fate of the boat.