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Last Updated: Friday, 16 June 2006, 16:20 GMT 17:20 UK
'The F-16s passed me at Osirak'
Gp Capt (Retd) Anant Bewoor (photo supplied by same)
Anant Bewoor once saw an Iranian air attack on Baghdad airport

BBC News recently ran a series to mark 25 years since Israeli bombers destroyed Osirak, Iraq's main nuclear reactor. A contributor to our anniversary Have Your Say alerted us to the untold story of an Indian pilot who also found himself in the air above Baghdad on 7 June 1981.

Here Gp Capt (Retd) Anant Bewoor, who trained Iraqi pilots on transport planes, tells BBC News about his experiences, beginning with the start of Iraq's war with Iran in 1980, and what appears to have been an Iranian air attack on Osirak early in 1981:

I was in Iraq from April 1980 to April 1982 under a government agreement to provide flying instructors to the Iraqi air force which went back to the late 1950s.

Even today I thank my maker that the Israelis were not interested in anything except Osirak

We had instructors there during the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, and the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. It was much appreciated by the Iraqis that the Indians did not want to go back home because of a hot shooting war in Iraq.

In September 1980 I was with 23 Sqn Iraqi Air Force on An-12s and one afternoon I was told to "take a rest" and not come to work for a few days.

Shortly afterwards, [Iraqi leader] Saddam [Hussein] attacked Iran with a midday strike contrary to all strategic and tactical doctrines.

Squadron Leader Panicker put me on to An-24s in January 1981 and all the flying was done at an airstrip 37km [23 miles] west of Habbaniya, a former Royal Air Force base.

One late morning in January or February my family and that of Panicker were on a day trip outside Baghdad, very close to the city.

Suddenly we heard a couple of loud bangs and a huge column of thick black smoke rose menacingly from the city. It appeared that the Iranians had hit the Baghdad oil refinery.

By the evening a thick blanket of smoke covered Baghdad with a strong smell of oil. Later, the gossip in the mess was that Iranian Phantom jets had failed to hit Osirak.

Panic at the airport

In April, we returned to Baghdad International Airport and continued instructional flying.

An-24 (archive: Cuban air force)
The Iraqi air force was equipped with Soviet transport planes

I had two sorties for the afternoon of 7 June.

After the second landing, we taxied back using the whole length of the runway, which is very long at Baghdad.

As we were parking and shutting down, I opened the side window and heard the distinct sound of anti-aircraft fire.

I casually mentioned to the trainee pilot and the navigator that it sounded like an air raid was on near Baghdad.

Would you believe it, in 20 seconds flat I was alone in the cockpit.

The propellers were still turning, the aircraft was still electrically live and fully energised, and here was this Indian squadron leader in the right-hand seat.

It was not possible to shut down the aircraft because doing so would have meant fuel going into the hot engine and a fire might break out.

I looked west and saw the setting sun, a pretty late sunset because it was June. It must have been about 1800 hours or so.

My aircraft was the only one in the line with rotating propellers and I recalled how an Iranian bomb had once narrowly missed hitting the Indian instructors' crew room. My aircraft with its turning props would have immediately attracted the attention of an attacking pilot.

So I too jumped out and sat down about 200 metres away. I could not see any of my crew. After about 15 minutes, I decided it was safe to get back in and shut down the An-24.

'Where are the planes?'

When I reached the squadron I was sheepishly met by my pupil pilot and the navigator.

I completed the debrief and one of my pupils offered me a lift home since government transport was not available.

By now it was dusk, and as we were driving out of the airport along the perimeter fence, all the AAA guns opened up.

The pupil stopped in his tracks and froze. One gun position was just three metres away and I could hear the gunners asking each other 'Where are the planes?'.

They were just popping off ammunition into the sky, not aiming at anything.

The next thing I knew was that my pupil had opened his door and was crawling out. I grabbed him and pulled him back in.

I told him that the safest place was away from the airfield. That idea appealed to him and off we went.

Blithely unaware

So where was I when the Osirak raid actually taking place?

I was up in the air blithely instructing my trainee with his screen pulled down so that he could not get external visual cues.

Not a care in the world and oblivious to eight F-16s diving to attack Osirak just about one kilometre to starboard.

The AAA did not react to the actual strike. I only heard sporadic fire from outside the airfield, well after the attack was over.

Neither did Baghdad air traffic control have any instructions for me - they too were unaware. The attack was a total surprise.

The other fact is that there was absolutely no other flying in progress at Baghdad International.

It is okay for me to believe today that the Israeli F-15 interceptors were not interested in an An-24 but what if they had got itchy fingers and seen us?

Even today I thank my maker that the Israelis were not interested in anything except Osirak.



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