EgyptAir Flight 648 is a regularly scheduled international flight between Athens (Ellinikon) Int’l Airport in Greece and Cairo International Airport in Egypt. On 23 November 1985, a Boeing 737-200 airliner, registered SU-AYH, servicing the flight was hijacked by the terrorist organization Abu Nidal. The subsequent raid on the aircraft by Egyptian troops resulted in dozens of deaths, making the hijacking of Flight 648 one of the deadliest such incidents in history. (The same aircraft had been diverted by Grumman F-14 Tomcat Fighter jets of the U.S. Navy a month earlier, after the Achille Lauro hijacking on 7 October.)
On 23 November 1985, Flight 648 took off at 8pm on its Athens-to-Cairo route. Ten minutes after takeoff, three Palestinian members of Abu Nidal hijacked the aircraft. The terrorists, calling themselves the Egypt Revolution, were heavily armed with guns and grenades. The terrorist leader, Omar Rezaq, proceeded to check all passports. At this point, an Egyptian Security Service agent, Mustafa Kamal, aboard opened fire, killing one terrorist before being wounded along with two flight attendants. In the exchange of fire the fuselage was punctured, causing a rapid depressurization. The aircraft was forced to descend to 14,000 feet (4,300 m) to allow the crew and passengers to breathe.
Libya was the original destination for the hijackers, but due to negative publicity the hijacking would have had if flown to Libya and the fact that the plane did not have enough fuel, Malta was chosen as a more suitable option. The aircraft was running dangerously low on fuel, experiencing serious pressurization problems and carrying a number of wounded passengers. However, Maltese authorities did not give permission for the aircraft to land (the Maltese government had previously refused permission to other hijacked aircraft, including on 23 September 1982 when an Alitalia aircraft was hijacked on its way to Italy). The EgyptAir 648 hijackers insisted, and forced the pilot, Hani Galal, to land at Luqa Airport. As a last-ditch attempt to stop the landing, the runway lights were switched off, but the pilot managed to land the damaged aircraft safely.
Nationalities of the passengers included the following:
The Mexican passengers were actress Lupita Pallás and her daughter Laila Ortiz de Pinedo, mother and sister of Mexican actor Jorge Ortiz de Pinedo.
At first, Maltese authorities were optimistic they could solve the crisis. Malta had good relations with the Arab world, and 12 years earlier had successfully resolved a potentially more serious situation when a KLM Boeing 747 landed there under similar circumstances. The Maltese Prime Minister, Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, rushed to the airport’s control tower and assumed responsibility for the negotiations. Aided by an interpreter, he refused to refuel the aircraft, or to withdraw Maltese armed forces which had surrounded the plane, until all passengers were released. Eleven passengers and two injured flight attendants were allowed off the plane. The hijackers then started shooting hostages, starting with Tamar Artzi, an Israeli woman. She was grazed on the ear, but pretended to be dead. Rezaq, the chief hijacker, threatened to kill a passenger every 15 minutes until his demands were met. His next victim was Nitzan Mendelson, another Israeli woman. She was killed instantly. He then shot three Americans – Patrick Scott Baker, Scarlett Marie Rogenkamp and Jackie Nink Pflug. Of the five passengers shot, Artzi, Baker and Pflug survived. A British passenger commented that he saw that Rezaq had to raise his gun in order to shoot Baker, who was about six feet tall.
France, the United Kingdom and the United States all offered to send anti-hijack forces. Bonnici was under heavy pressure from both the hijackers and from the United States and Egypt, whose ambassadors were at the airport. The non-aligned Maltese government feared that the Americans or the Israelis would arrive and take control of the area, as the U.S. Naval Air Station Sigonella was only 20 minutes away. A U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules with an aeromedical evacuation team from Rhein-Main Air Base (2nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron) near Frankfurt, Germany, and rapid-deploying surgical teams from Wiesbaden Air Force Medical Center were on standby at the U.S. Navy Hospital at Naples. When the U.S. told Maltese authorities that Egypt had a special forces counterterrorism team trained by the U.S. Delta Force ready to move in, they were granted permission to come. The Egyptian Al-Sa’iqa (Thunderbolt) unit — Task Force 777, under the command of Major-General Kamal Attia — was flown in, led by four American officers. Negotiations were prolonged as much as possible, and it was agreed that the plane should be attacked on the morning of 25 November when food was to be taken into the aircraft. Soldiers dressed up as caterers would jam the door open and attack.
Without warning, around an hour and a half before the planned time of the raid, Egyptian commandos attacked the passenger doors and luggage compartment doors with explosives. Bonnici claimed that these unauthorized explosions caused the internal plastic of the plane to catch fire, causing widespread suffocation. On the other hand, the Times of Malta, quoting sources at the airport on the day, held that when the hijackers realized that they were being attacked, they lobbed hand grenades into the passenger area, killing people and starting the fire aboard.
The storming of the aircraft killed 54 of the remaining 87 passengers, as well as two crew members and one hijacker. Only one hijacker — Omar Rezaq, who had survived — remained undetected by the Maltese government. The terrorist leader, who was injured during the storming of the aircraft, had removed his hood and ammunition and pretended to be an injured passenger. Egyptian commandos tracked Rezaq to St. Luke’s General Hospital and, holding the doctors and medical staff at gunpoint, entered the casualty ward looking for him. He was arrested when some of the passengers in the hospital recognized him.
A total of 58 of the 95 passengers and crew had died, as well as two of the three hijackers, by the time the crisis was over. Maltese medical examiners estimated that four passengers were shot dead by the commandos.
Rezaq faced trial in Malta, but with no anti-terror legislation, he was tried on other charges. There was widespread fear that terrorists would hijack a Maltese plane or carry out a terror attack in Malta as an act of retribution. Rezaq received a 25-year sentence, of which he served eight. His release caused a diplomatic incident between Malta and the U.S. because Maltese law strictly prohibited trying a person twice, in any jurisdiction, on charges connected to the same series of events (having wider limitations compared to classic double jeopardy). Following his immediate expulsion on release, he was captured on arrival in Nigeria. After three months he was handed over to the U.S., brought before a U.S. court and, on 7 October 1996, sentenced to life imprisonment with a no-parole recommendation.
Aftermath and criticism
In his 1989 book Massacre in Malta, John A. Mizzi writes:
Malta was faced with a problem it was ill-equipped to meet. The authorities took a firm stand in denying fuel to the hijackers but made no sensible provisions, through political bias and lack of experience, to meet the circumstances that arose from this decision. No proper team was set up at the outset to evaluate or deal progressively with the crisis, although only a few days previously an incident management course had been organized by a team of U.S. experts in Malta at the request of the government.
The Egyptian commandos were given too free a hand and they acted out of their mission with little regard for the safety of the passengers. They were determined to get the hijackers at all costs and the Maltese government’s initial refusal for U.S. anti-terrorist resources (a team led by a major-general with listening devices and other equipment) offered by the State Department through the U.S. Embassy in Malta – a decision reversed too late – contributed in no small measure to the mismanagement of the entire operation.
Mizzi also mentions how Maltese soldiers positioned in the vicinity of the aircraft were equipped with rifles but were not issued ammunition. An Italian secret service report on the incident showed how the fire inside the aircraft was caused by the Egyptian commandos who placed explosives in the aircraft cargo hold – the most vulnerable part of the aircraft, as it held the oxygen tanks which blew up. During the hijacking, only the Socialist Party media and state-controlled television were given information on the incident. Such was the censorship of the media, that the Maltese people first heard of the disaster through RAI TV, when its correspondent Enrico Mentana spoke live on the air via a direct phone call: “Parlo da Malta. Qui c’è stato un massacro …” (“I’m speaking from Malta. Here there’s just been a massacre …”) Shortly before this broadcast, a news bulletin on the Maltese national television had erroneously stated that all passengers had been released and were safe.
Decisions taken by the Maltese government drew criticism from overseas. The United States protested to Malta about U.S. personnel sent to resolve the issue having been confined to Air Squadron HQ and the U.S. Embassy in Floriana. The United States had seen the situation as so ‘hot’ that it had ordered a number of its naval ships, including an aircraft carrier, to move toward Malta for contingency purposes.
EgyptAir now uses flight number 648 on its Riyadh-Cairo route.
In popular culture
The events of the hijacking were related in an account by American survivor Jackie Nink Pflug, who had been shot in the head, on the Biography Channel television program I Survived…, which was broadcast on 13 April 2009. Laurence Zrinzo, the neurologist and neurosurgeon who established neurosurgery as a sub-speciality in the Maltese islands, performed Ms Pflug’s neurosurgical procedure. Ms Pflug also related details about the flight and the attack in her 2001 book, Miles to Go Before I Sleep. The incident was chronicled in an Interpol Investigates episode, “Terror in the Skies”, broadcast by the National Geographic Channel.
The hijacking is also the subject of the book Valinda, Our Daughter, written by Canadian author Gladys Taylor.
The events of the hijacking are described in and used to further the plot in Brad Thor’s novel Path of the Assassin.