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1978: Egyptian forces die in Cyprus gunfight

At least ten Egyptian commandos have been killed in a late-night gun battle with Greek Cypriot soldiers at Larnaca airport, Cyprus.

Egyptian troops and Cypriot forces exchanged fire as the fate of hostages and their abductors aboard a Cypriot airliner lay in the balance.

The Cypriot Government says it was in the process of solving the hostage crisis when the Egyptians launched their own assault on the airliner.

Egypt has blamed Cyprus for the bloodshed and said their special forces helped save the hostages and capture the terrorists.

Assassination

The crisis began yesterday when the editor of a prominent Egyptian newspaper and friend of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Youssef Sebai, was assassinated at the Nicosia Hilton by two gunmen.

Negotiators then agreed to allow the killers to leave Cyprus with 11 hostages including Egyptians, in a Cypriot Airlines DC8.

However, the plane was forced to return to the island after other states refused to allow it to land.

The Cypriot Government said they then permitted an Egyptian military C-130 Hercules to fly into Larnaca, but gave strict instructions to the Egyptians not to interfere.

Egyptian commandos then launched an all-out assault on the DC8 even as Cypriot negotiations had apparently secured the hostage-takers' surrender.

BBC reporter John Bierman described how the Cypriots opened fire on the Egyptian anti-terror unit resulting in a 50-minute fight between the two sides.

He said President Kyprianou and other senior Cypriot officials observing events were forced to retreat from the airport control tower after it was hit by bullets.

'Insane bravery'

An attempt by one Cypriot officer to order Egyptian soldiers already lying in their firing positions to surrender was described as an act of "insane bravery".

Most of the commandos were forced to seek cover in a nearby empty airliner after their Hercules was destroyed by a shell.

The crisis appears to have ended after the Cypriot National Guard overpowered the Egyptian commandos and the DC8's crew persuaded the gunmen to give up their weapons.

Wounded Egyptian commandos and Cypriots were rushed to Larnaka hospital.

In Context
Out of the anti-terrorist unit of 74 Egyptian commandos, 15 were killed. There were no Cypriot fatalities.

Frosty diplomatic relations between Nicosia and Cairo persisted for some time.

President Sadat called President Kyprianou a "political dwarf".

He criticised Cyprus for colluding with terrorists because of their links to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. Furthermore, the PLO's murky involvement in the hostages' release heightened suspicions.

President Kyprianou offered reconciliation and apologies but maintained that Cyprus could not have allowed the Egyptians to act.

They risked inflaming Middle East opinion, where Egypt had been virtually ostracised after making peace overtures with Israel.

Two Palestinian hijackers were swiftly prosecuted. They received death sentences, later commuted to life imprisonment.


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