Historic crashes

Published : Sep 25, 2009 00:00 IST

Yasser Arafat, PLO leader. The Antonov-24 plane he was travelling in crash-landed in the Libyan desert in April 1992, and he was given up for dead. He was rescued after more than five hours after his location was tracked down using satellite imagery.-THOMAS COEX/AFP

Yasser Arafat, PLO leader. The Antonov-24 plane he was travelling in crash-landed in the Libyan desert in April 1992, and he was given up for dead. He was rescued after more than five hours after his location was tracked down using satellite imagery.-THOMAS COEX/AFP

UNLIKE Yasser Arafat, the late leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy was not lucky to survive an aircrash. Arafat was given up for dead, when the Russian-built Antonov-24 transport plane crash-landed in the Libyan desert in a blinding sandstorm in April 1992. The two pilots and the engineer on board the plane were killed while trying to ensure a safe landing. Arafat was stranded for more than five hours in the Libyan desert and was tracked down using satellite imagery. Arafat, who had survived several assassination attempts, escaped the crash-landing with a few superficial wounds on his face.

Air accidents, many of them engineered by political enemies, have accounted for the deaths of leading politicians, worldwide. Some leading personalities have been lucky and have lived to tell the tale.

Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi, who has also survived several assassination attempts, escaped death when a bomb was discovered on a helicopter he was about to board. Libyan Intelligence blamed the bombing bid on their French counterparts. Soon after that a French passenger plane was blown up over Africa, in 1987. Libya later paid out a liberal compensation package to the families of those killed in the accident along with reparations to the French government. France and Libya were engaged in hostilities over Chad for most of the 1980s.

Apartheid South Africa was held responsible by many African governments for the crash of the plane carrying President Samora Machel of Mozambique in 1986. There were no survivors. Many Africans view the downing of the plane as one of the most dastardly acts in the annals of international terrorism. The plane crashed near the border between the countries. The apartheid regime never admitted culpability. In 2006, the South African government ordered a full-fledged inquiry into the crash. Machels killing prolonged the civil war in the country, resulting in countless deaths and the impoverishment of the economy.

Another African leader who had a similar end, this time a helicopter crash, was John Garang. He had signed a comprehensive peace agreement with the government of Sudan to end the long-running civil war and assumed the post of First Vice-President of the country. In August 2005, after barely three months in office, his helicopter, a Russian-made Mi-17, crashed in the jungles of Uganda. He was returning after a visit to his friend and patron Yoweri Museveni, the long-serving President of Uganda. The helicopter belonged to the fleet of the Ugandan President. As is usual in such cases, questions were raised about the circumstances surrounding the crash. Garang was the tallest leader from southern Sudan and was slated to be the President of the South, which is on the verge of seceding from the North. A referendum is slated to be held in 2011 on the issue.

In 1961, United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjoeld died in an aircrash in Zambia. He was involved at the time in a peace mission to the Congo. Two former U.N. employees testified that gunfire from mercenaries fighting against the government led by Patrice Lumumba was responsible for bringing down the aircraft. After Hammarskjoelds death, the situation deteriorated in the country, leading to a prolonged civil war. Outside powers, including former colonial powers, have blatantly exploited the countrys bountiful resources since then.

The plane crash that had the most devastating after-effect was the one involving the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. Presidents Juvenal Habvariana of Rwanda and Cyprian Ntyamira of Burundi were returning in the same plane on March 2004 after attending talks in Tanzania to resolve the long-running ethnic dispute between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis in both the countries. The plane was shot down when it was approaching to land in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. Both Presidents were Hutus. The shooting was blamed on rebel Tutsi forces led by Paul Kagame, the present Rwandan President. The death of the Rwandan President resulted in the massacre of more than 500,000 Rwandans, the majority of them Tutsis. The fight between the two groups spread to the neighbouring countries and has destabilised much of Central Africa.

Another plane crash that raised suspicions was the one that killed the charismatic President of Panama, Omar Torrijos, in 1981. A great friend of people like Graham Greene and Fidel Castro, Torrijos was the moving force behind the nationalisation of the United States-owned Panama Canal. Many of his ardent supporters alleged foul play. There were reports at the time that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had used the services of Torrijos number two, Manuel Noriega, to eliminate the President.

A plane crash also killed the legendary Cuban revolutionary, Camilo Cienfugos. Cienfugos, along with Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Raul Castro, formed the core group of Cuban revolutionaries who overthrew the repressive Batista regime. In October 1959, even before the revolution could celebrate its first anniversary, he died after the small Cessna plane he was travelling in went missing over the ocean during a night flight from Camaguey to Havana. The entire country came to a halt for three days as the search went on for the missing hero. Neither the wreckage nor the body was found.

In China, the mysterious plane crash that killed Defence Minster Lin Biao in 1971 still puzzles observers. The official explanation given at the time was that the plane crashed in Outer Mongolia as he attempted to flee to the Soviet Union. Those were the days of the Cultural Revolution. A power struggle was apparently on between the Gang of Four and a group led by Lin Biao. Lin Biao has now been posthumously rehabilitated by the Chinese Communist Party. His picture has now started appearing along with the nine other marshalls who played a pivotal role in the Great March and the liberation struggle.

Nearer home, the crash that killed Pakistani President Gen. Zia-ul-Haq in August 1988 created political tremors throughout the region. No clinching evidence has yet surfaced indicating that sabotage was involved in the crash. Besides Gen. Zia, the American Ambassador, who was travelling with him, was also killed. Very few people believe that the crash of the American-made C-130 was the result of a technical snag or an act of God. General Mirza Aslam Beg, who succeeded Gen. Zia as the Army chief, is of the view that sabotage was definitely involved.

When this correspondent met him in Islamabad last year, the retired general recalled the scene at the crash site. He said body parts were strewn all around. He recalled that his junior at the time, Pervez Musharraf, was also there with him. After Musharraf seized power, the two fell out.

Beg said that during his last meeting with Musharraf, soon after the latter assumed presidential powers, he had recalled the scene at the crash site and warned the new military dictator that he too would meet the same fate if he did not willingly cede power to civilians.

John Cherian
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