ISRAEL shoots down Lebanese civilian plane, pilot killed, army says

Thursday, May 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MIKHMORET, Israel (AP) _ Israeli military aircraft shot down a small Lebanese civilian plane Thursday after it crossed into Israel's airspace and for 15 minutes refused to respond to radio contact, the army said.

The pilot was believed to be the only person on board the Cessna, which crashed on Israel's Mediterranean coast, about 30 miles north of Tel Aviv, the army added.

The Israeli army had been on alert for possible attacks _ including possible suicide plane attacks _ by the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, an army spokesman said. Thursday was the first anniversary of Israel's military withdrawal from Lebanon.

The downing of the plane came as violence continued between Israel and the Palestinians despite international efforts to arrange a truce. Palestinian militants lobbed mortars at a Jewish settlement Thursday, causing no injuries. Israeli tanks rumbled into Palestinian territory in Gaza, firing shells and machine guns, before withdrawing a half hour later.

The Israeli military said it spotted the Cessna as it crossed into Israel after taking off from the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

The plane was flown by Stefan Nikolian, 43, a Lebanese of Armenian descent, who had taken several lessons this week but was not licensed to fly without a trained pilot, said Nemeh Malek, director of the company that owned the plane, JR Executives.

``Today, he got on the plane, started the engine and took off, leaving the pilot behind,'' Malek told The Associated Press in Beirut. Asked why, he replied, ``Nobody knows.''

Israeli warplanes and helicopters made repeated attempts to contact the Cessna, but the pilot refused to answer. The Israeli aircraft fired warning shots, and ``there also was eye contact and signs'' made to the pilot, said army spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz.

After 15 minutes, the plane was shot down by a helicopter, a military source said.

``We took into account that in light of the threats by Hezbollah, this was an attempt at a terrorist attack on an Israeli city,'' said Rafowicz.

There was no immediate word on whether the plane was carrying any weapons or explosives.

Most of the plane's wreckage crashed down on a navy training school on the beach, near the resort town of Mikhmoret. The pilot's mangled body fell through the roof and into the office of the school's assistant principal, Nitza Kramer, who was treated for shock.

Smaller pieces of wreckage fell on a road and were scattered throughout a residential area near the coast.

``I looked up when I heard the shooting and saw a plane splintering into pieces,'' said Assaf Pollak, a 56-year-old teacher of seamanship who was on the beach at the time. ``It spun through the air before hitting the ground.''

The Lebanese army said Nikolian had taken off without authorization. But an army statement said ``four Israeli fighter jets intercepted him and forced him to head south and (he) entered occupied Palestine's airspace when contact with him was lost.''

Hezbollah, in a broadcast on its radio station, was among the first to identify Nikolian. The station did not say whether he had any links to the guerrilla group.

Hezbollah, which battled Israeli troops during the occupation of southern Lebanon, has continued to carry out occasional attacks on a disputed patch of land along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

The Israelis also say that Hezbollah has been assisting the Palestinians with their uprising against the Israelis.

In 1987, a Palestinian guerrilla took off from Lebanon in a hang-glider and landed near a military outpost in northern Israel, killing six soldiers with hand grenades and a machine gun before being killed himself.

In a similar hang-glider incursion in 1981, a Palestinian guerrilla landed in northern Israel and seized a civilian hostage. But he was captured after he fell asleep, allowing his hostage to escape.

Also in 1981, a squad of guerrillas flew a hot-air balloon from south Lebanon into Israel, but were all shot down and killed.