For 40 years, the raid on Entebbe International Airport story has been a colourful narrative of Israeli commandos triumphal rescue of its citizens held hostage by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations (PFLP).
Bob Astles, a British army officer who lived in Uganda and worked with both presidents Milton Obote and Amin, captures the 1976 Entebbe airport raid in his book, Forty Tribes: A Life in Uganda. The book was published in 2015, more than two years after Astles’ death in December 2012. In our second part series, we cover Astles’ narrative that is rarely mentioned about the raid.
Astles reveals that after refuelling in Tripoli, the hijackers of the Air France plane had Sudan as their destination. However, as the flight approached Khartoum, an attempted military coup was underway against the government of President Jaafar Nimeiri. Dissident soldiers were making an advance on the capital, Khartoum, seeking to overthrow Nimeiri who was due to conclude a three-week foreign trip to France and the United States.
Nimeiri’s forces regained full control of the capital on July 3, 1976, the day the president returned after a long trip and was whisked away from the airport amidst heavy fighting. But by that time the hostage crisis at Entebbe had entered its fifth day and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had already set off from Tel Aviv on a rescue mission.
According to Astles, Entebbe was the very last resort after the hijackers had run out of options. This account is corroborated by Amin in his letter to the UN Security Council in which he says the hostages ended up in Uganda on humanitarian grounds. In the letter, Amin says the plane had run out of fuel and would have crashed within 15 minutes.
During the UN Security Council debate that would follow, French ambassador to the UN Jacques Lecompte alluded to this fact saying his government had asked the Ugandan authorities to allow the plane to land at Entebbe. Astles says in his book that after the attack, the Ugandan army at Entebbe was so bitter that they turned guns against their commander-in-chief:
“The next thing Amin knew about developments was when his furious soldiers fired a rocket into a large tree a few yards from the west wing of State House… his officers and men accused him of allowing the Israelis (IDF) into the country.”
Amin, says Astles, tried to talk his way out of the situation by reminding his commanders of the agreements that had been made for the safety of the aircraft that were bringing in a negotiating team for the release of the hostages. Amin reportedly ordered a “purge on innocent civilians” said to be linked with the Israelis as a way of deflecting the blame from himself.
AMIN’S OFFENSIVE STARTS
At Entebbe on the morning of July 4, 1976, President Amin blamed those he said had assisted Israel to attack Uganda. The Voice of Uganda of July 5, 1976 quotes President Amin, pointing out neighbouring Kenya, France, West Germany and the US as countries that assisted Israel.
He said: “This decision was communicated to Kenya authorities, whose consent and assistance was obtained… Israeli planes, on their way to and from Uganda, stopped at Nairobi where, for example, a mobile operating theatre was set up to take care of the invaders’ casualties.”
In a broadcast on Radio Uganda, Amin confirmed the death of the seven hijackers and 20 Ugandan soldiers. Thirty-two other soldiers had been wounded during the attack, according to Amin who insisted the Israelis had also “suffered heavy casualties.”
He said he had been trying to free the remaining hostages by negotiation and the Israelis had not appreciated his “humanitarian gesture” and instead attacked his country.
Amin is quoted by The Voice of Uganda on July 5th: “Israelis have killed our people instead of thanking us for the hospitality we have accorded their people on whom Uganda was spending Shs 50,000 every day to feed them.” He called on the world to condemn what he called Israeli aggression.
Later that day, Amin received Libya’s Charge d’Affairs in Kampala, Mohammed el-Bahi who conveyed a message of support from Libyan leader, Col Muammar Gaddafi. In the message, Gaddafi expressed his country’s readiness to assist Uganda in any way possible.
In our third part, find out how Uganda’s Foreign Affairs minister, Lt Col Juma Oris clashed with his Kenyan counterpart Dr Munywa Waiyaki, at the OAU summit in Mauritius, over Kenya’s role in the attack. How did African leaders react to the raid?