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Excerpt from To Taunt a Wounded Tiger

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'To Taunt a Wounded Tiger'.Chapter 7

Midday: Ilha do Sal - Espargos Airfield


Ilha do Sal, the 'Island of Salt', 83 square miles of sand, its flatness broken by a few saline hills and notable for only two things: its exports of salt to Portugal and the airport of Espargos, capable of accepting the largest passenger aircraft in service.

During the sixties and seventies, South African Airways saw their traditional stopping points on the way to Europe denied them. Nairobi, Khartoum and Cairo were blocked by Nationalistic Governments who did not want to be accused by the African National Congress of helping the racist government of South Africa. Forced by circumstance, the South Africans first flew from Johannesburg to Salisbury in Rhodesia and then over Portuguese-held Angola, out into the South Atlantic, and up past the Western bulge of Africa to Lisbon. It was a brutal test of aircrews and aircraft, for the margins were fine and a stopping point had to be found. Ilha do Sal, lying like a pebble cast into the sea off the coast of Senegal at position Lat. 16 45' North, Long. 23 West, almost halfway between Luanda in Angola and Lisbon in Portugal, was the perfect answer. The airport at Espargos was quickly upgraded to take the largest aircraft then flying, and the Terminal was cleaned and upgraded to cope with over three thousand passengers a week. When Angola fell to the Marxist MPLA in 1977, South Africa swung from using Luanda to Windhoek in South West Africa, but Ilha do Sal remained a vital link in their system.

Now the giant 747 in the orange, blue and white livery of South African Airways sat on the apron in the sparkling sunshine. The airport, seen by most travellers only at night, now sported armed men on the roof and others lounging in the shade of the verandah. The seizure was total: the airport, aircraft, and all ground facilities were in the hands of the hijackers and their accomplices. On a tiny island that a large force could approach only by sea, and then with difficulty, the hijackers were in total command.

The passengers sat mutely aboard: some trying to sleep, others reading, and still others staring into space. It was hot and would have been much worse but for the air-conditioning plant that whined away softly. On the flight deck, Captain Johannes Strydom waited for the next set of instructions. A longtime veteran of South African Airways and one of the few remaining who remembered landing at Ilha do Sal in the seventies, he still could not fully believe that this was happening to his aircraft. The rest of the flight-deck crew had been unceremoniously ejected from the flight deck and now sat under guard in the first-class cabin. All captains fear a hijacking and are trained repeatedly on methods to use in handling the situation but, he thought sourly, it always happens to the other guy. All he could do now was wait. The Irishman didn't worry him. He smiled a lot, made jokes, and even though his eyes never softened, he seemed to be totally relaxed. The Arab who stood in the doorway was another matter. This man the Captain measured as a true psychopath. He shivered slightly, hoping that the Irishman or whoever was in charge could keep control of all the men under his command.



The man looking through the huge window into the Washington evening did not turn when the door opened behind him.

"How did they know?" His voice had the husky quality that comes from too many cigarettes over too long a period. The man who had just entered did not reply immediately. He closed the door with a soft click, and opening the folder stamped EYES ONLY - CODE ONE, walked towards the man at the window. "We're still not sure that he's the primary target. Here look at this."

"For God's sake, Jack, it's more than just coincidence." Edward Mason still did not turn from the window to face his Deputy Chief of Operations. "Don't try to tell me that we picked the one airline that was due for a hijack - statistical averages or something."

"No, sir." Jack Dehenny sighed. He had worked with his boss for more than twenty-five years and they made a good team. He knew what was going through Mason's mind, and the unthinkable was now a very real possibility. "But it is more than passing strange that Eli Natan is on board that aircraft. Our resident at JFK recognised him, but didn't log the sighting until the end of his shift." Dehenny raised his hand, as if to ward off a blow as Mason spun around. "I know, I know! But hell, Ed, he naturally assumed that we were aware that MOSSAD'S top agent was outbound. After all, Eli was in here talking to me only last week."

Edward Mason stood absolutely still. Plastic surgery gave his face a blankness that was hard to penetrate; only his eyes expressed emotion, and Dehenny saw a spark of hope flare in their dark depths. "What's Tel Aviv saying?"

"They apologise for the oversight in not advising us; but, as you know, this trip has been on the card for months. Eli has wanted to take a trip to South Africa for a long time; his father was born there. Eli went incognito for all the usual reasons."

"A mole inside their operation?"

"That's the most viable working hypothesis now. Apparently Eli left at very short notice and his cover as a Lebanese-American businessman is watertight."

"You realise we may be building the wrong construct. Mossad may not be the target. We could be the target, and Eli being on this particular plane is nothing but an incredible coincidence."

Jack Dehenny sighed. "Yes, and we could have the mole." There, it had finally been said; the one thing they both dreaded. "Look, Ed, we've kept the whole operation on a strict need-to-know basis. All the people involved have top clearance."

"Oh yes, and what about that suave prick in the President's office?"

"He only knew the outline, not the details. There's no way he could've ..., assuming he is the leak, marked CANCEL ... absolutely no way."

"Jack, we have to assume that this hijacking is tied in some way with CANCEL. I feel it in my bones. Get the brains trust going over all the information, but isolate them until further notice."

"Yes, I thought of that as well. I'll set it up right away."

"Jack, too much is at stake here. I want full checks run and, if necessary, rerun on everyone who is involved with CANCEL'S mission."

Dehenny shook his head. "No, Ed, let's wait. If we start stirring things up at this end, it might just flag the hijackers, if Eli Natan is their target, to look closer at the other passengers."

Mason turned back to the window. The silence deepened before the two men. When Mason spoke it was barely above a whisper. "You're right, of course ... but call the White House; we'll have to brief the President."

"Do you want me along?"

"Yes. It's your operation. You should be there."



Midday: Espargos - Ilha do Sal

The door to the cockpit opened, and a middle-aged man in faded denims entered. His presence dominated the small cockpit. He pointed to the door. "Go and have some coffee, Kassim. I need to have the Captain talk to the world."

The Arab smiled mirthlessly; "I wish to listen - this is a historic moment." The man in denim turned, and Strydom noted that his eyes were almost colourless. Denim paused to stare at the one called Kassim.

"Very well - ask O'Doull to come forward as well." He jerked his head, dismissing the Arab.

"My name is Davis, Captain. I have opened a Satlink channel and patched it through to the tower. Anything you say to the tower is relayed to wherever we wish. Do you understand? ... Good. Also understand that, by using the tower as a relay, we can delay any heroic attempt to pass restricted information." His craggy face broke into a smile. "Don't worry, Captain; no one is going to get hurt." He handed Strydom a typewritten sheet. "Read that out, Captain: just as if you were asking for clearance. Speak slowly and clearly."

Strydom took the paper, cleared his throat, and began reading. "This is the 24th November group. We hold the aircraft and passengers, and require the immediate release of all Hamas members in Israeli jails. There will be no further communications until this instruction has been carried out." Strydom cleared his throat and continued with the final paragraph. "Starting at 2400 hours local time, that is, seventeen hours from now -- we will begin executing one passenger every fifteen minutes unless we have received confirmation that our people have been released." Strydom stopped, shaking the paper at the pale-eyed man: "Good God, man, you've just told me that no one is going to get hurt - this would be murder."

The craggy face showed no emotion. "Captain, I sincerely hope that the Israelis obey the instructions, then no one will get hurt, but, just so they believe we are serious - look outside."

Unwillingly, Strydom turned to where the man was indicating. Out on the hardstand, thirty feet from the cockpit, two men in camouflage uniforms held a stewardess by her arms. Strydom recognised her; she was the new girl just graduated from domestic flights to the long haul routes. She had brought him coffee only a few hours before. Suddenly understanding and horrified, he turned back to the pale-eyed man: "Dear God, no ... please, she's just a child," he pleaded. Kassim gripped his hair and wrenched his face back to the tableau outside. The girl was forced to her knees, and a third man, dressed like the others stepped up behind the terrified stewardess and on a signal from the cockpit, raised his pistol and shot the girl through the head.

"No! ... you bastards ...!" Strydom was struggling to his feet when a pistol slammed against his head, stunning him and bringing blood from a cut over his eyes.

"Calm yourself, Captain. I will have the rest of the cabin crew shot right now if you don't settle down." The pale-eyed man handed Strydom a cloth from a pocket in the seat back. "Hold that over your forehead." Watching the captain dab at his head with an unsteady hand, the Arab called Kassim giggled: a high pitched unnerving sound.

Strydom felt nausea rising and fought to control it. He felt dizzy, and his anger faded as fear gripped his mind. These men were killers, psychopaths; they would have no more feeling about killing all the cabin crew than they would have about swatting a fly.

"Good, I see we have your full attention, Captain. Now, call the tower and tell them what has just happened." Pale-eyes tapped the headset lightly. "Now, please!"

Strydom keyed the microphone. Still feeling sick, he gave a flat monotonous account of the death of the stewardess.

"Excellent, Captain! I sincerely hope your description does the trick. I would be very unhappy to have to kill all the passengers." He rose to leave the cockpit. "O'Doull, you take the co-pilot's seat and keep our Captain company. Come with me, Kassim." The two men left the cockpit.


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