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Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Standard | Online Edition :: One moment that got the ‘general’ on the edge

more on the events surrounding Entebbe

One moment that got the ‘general’ on the edge
By Patrick Mathangani

On the morning of July 2, 1976, the then Ugandan president Idi Amin gathered his aides in one room at a private villa where he was staying.

He had travelled to Mauritius where an Organisation of African Unity — now African Union — meeting was going on, but planned to get back home soon to attend to a festering hostage crisis.

Palestinian and German terrorists had hijacked an Air France flight and directed it to Entebbe Airport, just a stonethrow from State House. With nearly 100 Jews on board, Israelis were bothering Amin over the issue.

It was not unlike Ugandan strongman to call such unplanned briefings. However, that morning, as the sun rose above the Indian Ocean, not even its radiance could wash away the forlorn, scared look on his face. As usual, everyone in his entourage attended the impromptu briefing – bodyguards, journalists, and Cabinet ministers. "Young men," he said, "There’s going to be bad news for us."

"What’s the bad news?" a Cabinet minister asked. "The Israeli’s are planning something against us," said Amin.

Recalling the conversation, Haji Manishur Abiriga says Amin had earlier received a call from an Israeli army general enquiring when he was planning to return to Uganda. The Standard On Saturday established the man on the phone from Israel was Baruch Bar Lev, a former head of Israel’s mission that trained Ugandan soldiers in the early 1970s. But Amin had earlier expelled the Israelis and made friends with Libya and the Russians, who were supplying him with weapons.

Now retired, Abiriga was then a journalist working with the Presidential Press Unit, and had travelled with Amin in the presidential jet.

On this morning, the president said he was bothered by the nagging calls. He asked one group of the Ugandan delegation, which had arrived in a Boeing 707, to pack and return home. The group using the presidential jet would travel the following day.

The day before, the Israelis had made an offer to negotiate with the terrorists, but this was only to buy time as they prepared a rescue plan. Amin was a central figure in the plan as he served as the link between the hijackers and Israel.


Unknown to the Ugandans, the Israelis had already established that although Amin was pleading innocence, he was on the side of terrorists. It would appear Amin sensed the Israeli’s were up to no good as he called his men to prepare for any eventuality.

The following day, it was time to leave. Amin had completed his main duty here, which was to hand over the chairmanship of the now defunct OAU. But before they could take off in the afternoon, the president called one more briefing. "He told us the Israelis were planning to hold us hostage, and that they had sent planes which were circling the Indian Ocean," recalls Abiriga. But Amin had more scary news.

The president told his frightened audience: "We have explosives on board. If they come, we’ll blow ourselves up."

As the presidential jet soared above the clouds, tense passengers clutched their seats. Everyone was cared. Amin, the burly military man the world referred as the "Butcher of Uganda," was scared too. They kept peeping out the tiny windows to lookout for the doomsday Israeli planes.

The planes did not come.

That day, the presidential jet did not follow the usual route.

It zig-zagged in the skies for hours on end as Amin sought to shrug off any Israelis following him.

The plane eventually landed safely a few minutes to 11pm. Amin headed straight to the airport’s VIP lounge. Unlike other days, he did not hold a press briefing but promised to do so before he left for State House. Unknown to them, the Israeli planes landed at Entebbe at 11pm.

However, Major General Doron Almog of Israel’s Defense Forces disputes there were any plans to kidnap Amin, and probably have him tried for terrorism.

Almog said the only mission of the raid on Entebbe was to rescue the hostages.

"It’s not true. It’s not relevant," he said in a telephone interview.

"The most important issue was to bring back the Jews."

However, the fact that the Israelis landed just minutes after Amin had left the airport convinces those who were with him he had just escaped a plot to kidnap him.

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