Fate of missing Israeli pilot fuels hijacking drama

JERUSALEM — The fate of missing airman Ron Arad fueled Israeli passions once again after a hijacked Iranian jet was forced to land on Israeli soil this week.

Arad's mother, Batya, and his two brothers, Chen and David, flew to the Ovda military air base in the Negev north of Eilat Wednesday to urge passengers of the hijacked craft to plea to the Iranian government for Arad's safe return.

The family's appeals came after Israel released the hijacked jet with all 174 passengers and crew except the hijacker, a flight attendant apparently disgruntled with life in Iran.

"When you return, each of you appeal to your government, to [President Hashemi] Rafsanjani to help us get information about [Arad] and his release," Batya Arad told the passengers.

One of several Israel MIAs sought by Israel, Arad bailed out from a fighter plane over Lebanon in 1986 and was believed held by pro-Iranian militants.

He was last heard to be alive in October 1987. Since then, there have been sporadic reports that Arad was subsequently transferred to captivity in Iran, which Iran denies.

At the Ovda air base, the family distributed leaflets and "Free Ron Arad" stickers to the passengers. The hijacker, a man in his 30s, surrendered to Israeli police and soldiers about one hour after the plane landed Tuesday night.

Education Minister Amnon Rubinstein said Israeli officials questioned some of the passengers about Arad, but most said they never heard of him.

"I feel sad for the family, but I believe whatever my government says about this story," Mehdi Darayli, an English teacher from Tehran, told Israel Radio.

The hijacking saga began when the flight attendant brandished a pistol and commandeered the Boeing 707 after takeoff from Tehran Tuesday as it headed to the Persian Gulf resort island of Kish, a duty-free shopping mecca.

He demanded to fly to Europe. But after Saudi Arabia and Jordan refused to let the plane land the pilot radioed an emergency call to Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, saying the aircraft was low on fuel and would crash-land.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, fearing the plane could be on a suicide mission, ordered the jet diverted to Ovda, away from population centers.

The hijacker surrendered peacefully to Israeli security soon after the jet landed and requested asylum, first in the United States, then in Israel.

The passengers, mostly tourists, spent the night at the Ovda base and were offered food and first aid. Women in black veils and robes talked as men knelt in Muslim prayers. Many voiced surprise at being in Israel, though one reportedly asked for a souvenir — an Israel Air Force beret.

The crew and male passengers were questioned by security officials. Meanwhile, political pressure gathered for Israel to use the incident to gain information about Arad, and the missing pilot's mother was allowed to talk to passengers.

But on Wednesday, Israel released the plane and its passengers and crew, some 35 hours after it first touched down on Israeli soil. Two Israeli F-16 jet fighters escorted the aircraft until it left Israeli air space; it then was routed over Turkey and to Tehran.

Though Arad's family called on Israel to hold the plane as a bargaining chip for Arad's release, the government rejected the idea.

The Cabinet issued a communiqué stating that "Israel stands by its strong opposition to air piracy and is releasing the plane and passengers despite the hostility of the Iranian regime towards Israel."

Iran demanded the immediate return of all passengers, including the hijacker. Iranian Television condemned Israel for holding the passengers and crew, and demanded their immediate release from "occupied Palestine."

Shortly before the plane left Israel, Iran's U.N. envoy, Kamal Kharrazi, accused Israel of hostage-taking and called the hijacking a "pre-planned Zionist operation."

Israel rejected Iran's demand that the hijacker be extradited. Police said he was taken to Eilat for further questioning. Israel Radio reported the hijacker would be handed over to the Red Cross.

Five other passengers reportedly asked for asylum in Israel, but they were traveling with the rest of the passengers when the flight returned to Tehran.

The speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, also denounced Israel's questioning of the passengers, as Iranian lawmakers reportedly chanted, "Death to Israel."