Undercover guards thwart hijack attempt, Israel says

J By Matthew McAllester

jERUSALEM – Undercover security guards on an Israeli flight Sunday from Tel Aviv to Istanbul, Turkey, wrestled to the floor a man attempting to hijack the plane with a pocketknife, Israeli officials and media said. Turkey’s Anatolian news agency said the suspect was an Israeli Arab named Tawfiq Fukra, 23, who initially threatened a flight attendant with a knife and then tried to enter the cockpit. The pilot sent out a distress signal indicating that a hijacking attempt was in progress, an airport official said, but security guards on board quickly overpowered the man.

“We heard people saying there was fighting, and half a minute later it became clear that from row five or six a man ran amok towards the pilot’s cabin, attacked a stewardess and tried to enter the cockpit,” an Israeli passenger named Menachem Binet told Israel army radio. “We saw a stewardess running like crazy from the front … to the business section. (Security guards) threw him to the floor with his legs spread and his face to the floor. The passengers were hysterical, but the flight attendants were very cool. They calmed us down.”

All 170 passengers on board were unharmed, officials said. The incident happened about 15 minutes before Flight 581 from Tel Aviv was due to land at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul. Some reports said the suspect tried to stab a flight attendant or take her hostage.

“He was apparently sitting in business class,” another male passenger told the Israel Radio network from Istanbul. “He was alone.”

Oktay Cakirlar, an airport official, said the suspect was in custody at the Istanbul airport, and Israel’s Channel 2 television station said Turkish officials planned to hand him over to Israeli police for further questioning.

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz was describing the suspect Sunday night as “eccentric,” perhaps indicating the man was mentally unstable rather than criminally minded. Whatever the man’s motives, he apparently managed to smuggle a knife on board what is generally considered to be the most security-conscious commercial airline in the world. As a result of the breach of security, Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport was closed Sunday night and El Al’s fleet was grounded.

The Israel Airports Authority initiated an investigation to see how the passenger managed to take a knife onto the plane. Usually, El Al passengers are either questioned rigorously by security staff or, more recently, they and their baggage are searched thoroughly with X-ray machines and metal detectors. As an obvious target for Arab terrorists, El Al has for years asked its customers to be patient with these unparalleled measures. As an extra measure, all flights feature armed security guards who pretend to be passengers.

The two guards on board Flight 581 took control of the hijacker and within seconds, reports said, the man was in handcuffs and the incident was over.