Uganda: The Untold Story of 1976 Entebbe Raid

Is there any other version to the Entebbe raid story? Do we really know everything that happened at Entebbe during and after that 1976 Israeli raid?

For 40 years, the raid on Entebbe International Airport story has been a colourful narrative of Israeli commandos triumphal rescue of its citizens held hostage by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - External Operations (PFLP-EO).

In books and in movies, it's been documented as a blue-print for special operations; a brilliant mission that is almost unparalleled in history; a turning point in the fight against terrorism; the most daring rescue mission of all time.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summed it up on July 4, 2016 while in Uganda to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the raid: "At Entebbe, international terrorism suffered a stinging defeat. The rescue mission proved that good can prevail over evil, that hope can triumph over fear."

What is hardly told, however, is how Uganda went on a diplomatic offensive accusing Israel of aggression and seeking to have the Jewish state isolated. The then leadership in Kampala lobbied the Organisation of African Unity - OAU (now African Union), the United Nations (UN) and the Non-Aligned Movement countries to present their case.

THE DOMINANT NARRATIVE

The story the world has come to accept starts in the Israel city Tel Aviv and ends in Tel Aviv. And it goes: An Air France Flight 139 with 248 passengers and crew on board lifted off from Ben Gurion Airport enroute to Paris, France, on June 27th 1976. After a brief stopover in Athens, Greece, the airbus was hijacked by a group of terrorists belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

The plane was forced to land in Libya, refuelled and then headed south. After 4am on June 28th, the plane landed at Entebbe. The complex negotiations kicked off between the PFLP and different governments whose nationals were on board. The hijackers pushed for the release of the PFLP members jailed in different countries in exchange for the hostages.

By Sunday, July 4th when the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) attacked, only 105 passengers and crew were still being held at Entebbe. The rest had been released. Those who stayed were either Israeli nationals or related to Israel through their Jewish descent.

The number of dead on both sides during the operation is still buried beneath the dust of propaganda that is yet to settle 40 years on. Officially, Uganda lost 20 soldiers while 13 others were wounded. Israel lost one soldier, Lt Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, the commander of Sayeret Matkal, the commando unit that rescued the hostages. Five other commandos were wounded.

Seven terrorists were killed in the fire exchange, which also claimed four hostages.

THE AFTER-RAID

Realising that he could not wage a military offensive against the countries that took part in the raid on Entebbe in 1976, Ugandan President Idi Amin launched a diplomatic war.

Israel was thousands of kilometres away from the Ugandan border. While Kenya the country that allowed Israeli planes to refuel to and from Entebbe was within reach, Amin perhaps realised he was ill prepared for such a war. Uganda had lost at least 11 fighter jets during the Entebbe raid and the morale of the troops was low.

The diplomatic offensive began in Port Louis, on the island of Mauritius where Amin had handed over the chairmanship of the OAU just hours before the raid at Entebbe. Amin cut short his stay in Mauritius, telling leaders at the Summit: "If you don't see me full time in this particular assembly you know I have problems to solve [back home]."

Shortly, after handing over the OAU chairmanship to the Prime Minister of Mauritius, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, Amin headed back home leaving foreign affairs minister, Col Juma Oris, to lead the Ugandan delegation at the summit.

Meanwhile, unknown to Amin, the Israeli attacking force had also set off from Tel Aviv, landing at Entebbe within an hour after the presidential jet had landed. Information obtained recently indicates Amin had actually issued orders to his army not to fight in case there was an attack on Entebbe.

Bob Astles, a British army officer who lived in Uganda and worked with both presidents Milton Obote and Amin, captures the raid in his book, Forty Tribes: A Life in Uganda. The book was published in 2015, more than two years after Astles' death in December 2012.

In the book, Astles says Amin cut short his stay in Mauritius to come home and "end the hostage crisis." He says on page 139: "On the return journey (from Mauritius) in his executive jet, Amin sat beside a London friend of mine named Malik whose job it had been to keep him informed about hijacking developments."

He adds: "Malik, who knew Amin's mental processes better than I did, has always insisted that Amin went back to Uganda in order to end the hijacking saga."

Astles further quotes Malik as saying that Amin had told him during the return flight that the hostages would be moved to a national park. When the president landed at Entebbe towards midnight on July 3, he "gave orders to the army staff meeting him that no one in any circumstances whatever was to open fire on any aircraft that came into the airport."

Amin also reportedly refused to meet three Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) representatives waiting for him in another part of the airport. He was instead driven alone straight to State House, Entebbe.

It is not clear why Amin declined to meet the PLO officials. What is clear, however, is that the Israeli commandos landed at Entebbe after midnight and the attack was underway within minutes.

According to Astles, all the Israeli aircraft were seen on the radar and "certainly the Ugandan troops saw them as they landed." He adds: "One Israeli C130 plane parked itself less than 200 yards from a ground-to-air missile site at the north end of the old runway... "

He says the total death toll at Entebbe was 127 people, a statistic much higher than those quoted by both Israeli and the Uganda government.

In our second part, find out how, after the Entebbe attack, Ugandan soldiers felt betrayed by Idi Amin and turned guns against their Commander-in-Chief.

Source: The Observer.