BEIRUT–(combined sources)–An Israeli military aircraft shot down a small Lebanese civilian plane yesterday–after it crossed into Israel’s airspace amid an alert for possible attacks by the Lebanese guerilla group Hezbollah. The aircraft opened fire after the pilot – believed to be the only person on board the Cessna 152 – failed to respond to radio and visual contact–the army said.
The plane crashed near a Mediterranean town and the pilot’s body fell through the roof of a Navy training school.
The Israeli army had gone on alert for possible attacks by Hezbollah–including suicide plane attacks–an army spokesman’said. Yesterday 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. 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 Ohaness 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 reporters. Asked why–he replied–"Nobody knows." As the plane taxied–its wing hit an airport worker–slightly injuring him–security officials said.
Israel army spokesman Ron Kitrey said that helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft crews had tried to warn the pilot of the Cessna aircraft that he was flying over Israel. He said the warnings went unheeded and the Israelis shot down the plane. The army spokesman’s office said Israel feared it carried explosive materials and might otherwise crash into one of Israel’s cities.
"Without permission from the school’s administration–he circled in the direction of south Lebanon–where he was intercepted by four Israeli jet fighters which forced him south,” the Lebanese army said.
An Israeli witness named Sigal noted that the Israeli air force fighters "took off after the plane like a cat after a mouse."
Israel’s armed forces said its aircraft escorted the plane for 15 minutes along the coast–southward–while deliberating what to do. "The (Israeli) pilots signaled him in agreed international signals…and even fired a warning shot in front of him and at his side,” Kitrey stated.
The plane was shot down by a helicopter with a nose-mounted cannon machine gun–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 army spokesman Lt. Col. Oliver 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–30 miles north of Tel Aviv. 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.
"Suddenly from the corner of the ceiling a flash of light came through and then everything went black and the room was full of smoke," said Kramer. "I couldn’t see anything but I stepped on something soft which must have been the body."
The Lebanese army said Nikolian took off without authorization. But the army–in a statement–said the Israeli aircraft "forced him to head south" and enter Israeli airspace.