PUBLICATION DATE NOVEMBER 2019
August 20th, 1971
Two uniformed policemen opened the tall, ornate, entrance gates and saluted as the black Citroen limousine swept through into the courtyard of the hotel de Beauvau in the Parisian district of La Madeleine. The car pulled up outside the main entrance to the Ministry of Interior, better known - predominantly by the news media - as Place Beauvau. Its metonym used much like Washington is used to refer to the US government and Downing Street for the British prime minister.
The tall figure of Rikard Carignan, head of The General Directorate for External Security, climbed out of the vehicle and hurried into the building. He paused at the foot of the grand staircase and glanced at his watch – 7:20 pm. He was running late. He took a deep breath and climbed rapidly, belying his sixty-six years. A smartly dressed man in his thirties engaged him at the top of the stairs. “The Minister is anxiously awaiting your arrival, Director,” he said and led him hurriedly down a carpeted hall towards a pair of polished, mahogany doors. “Director Carignan,” he announced as he opened the righthand door and stood to the side, allowing the head of France’s external intelligence agency to step through then closed the door behind him.
“My apologies, Minister,” he said as he approached the group of men seated on high-backed chairs at a large table in the centre of an impressive, boiserie room. He was always taken by, although he thought it too pretentious for his taste, by the wood-panelled, meeting room - a beautifully preserved de rigueur feature of 17th century French fashion.
“Thank you for coming at such short notice, Director.” The recently appointed Minister of Interior, Phillipe d’Aubigne, was a handsome man in his late fifties and of aristocratic bearing, a direct descendant of the second wife of King Loius XIV, Françoise d’Aubigne. “I think you are acquainted with most of the people here,” he said gesturing to an empty seat to his left. Rikard Carignan smiled and nodded at the assembly as he placed a brown, leather briefcase on the table and sat down. “So what do we know so far?” asked the Minister directing the question at the newly arrived Director.
“The leader is one Aashif Akbar, an Algerian national and younger brother to Mourad Akbar, currently a guest in our high-security Clairvaux Prison,” he started, pulling out a buff Manila folder from his briefcase. “As you may already know, Mourad Akbar was identified as the man behind the bombing of our embassy in Algiers in ’66, killing twenty-one and injuring scores more. It was difficult at first to locate him given the troubles in the country. We eventually tracked him down and three of his accomplices, in Lebanon two years ago with the help of our friends in Israeli Mossad.” He spoke slowly pausing only to light a cigarette. “Here’s a photo of the four. Mourad Akbar is the one top-left.” He handed out two photographs to be passed around for perusal. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a picture of the younger Akbar on the plane. We’ve tried to capture his image through the cockpit window, but he keeps his head down and stands well back when on the radio. He’s a smart cookie.”
“What else do we know of this Aashif Akbar?” asked Maurice Dubray, the portly Director of the Paris Police Prefecture – a unit of the Ministry of Interior providing police and emergency services to the city of Paris and surrounding districts.
“I can help with that,” interjected the head of the Directorate for Defense Protection and Security, a military intelligence agency surveilling and conducting counter-espionage, “Director Carignan asked us to assist with whatever detail we could muster.”
Paul Lagrave was in his mid-fifties and a retired army colonel who had joined the agency following his retirement from the French Foreign Legion and who within six years, had been promoted to head the DDPS. He and Rikard Carignan had worked together on a number of occasions and held each other in mutual respect.
“The boys are two of four sons of Abdou Akbar, aka. Abu Mourad, one of the Algerian National Liberation Front principal leaders killed in 1958, during the Algerian War. The old boy was quite the fanatic - blew himself up resisting capture, taking three of our boys with him to the afterlife.”
“Can we confirm how many highjackers there are?” asked the junior Minister of International Affairs, Jean Mayeux - a man in his late forties with whom Carignan had previous dealings and regarded as an ambitious and stereotypical bureaucrat.
“My unit has managed to make contact with the pilot and has confirmed that there are four highjackers. However, we were unable to identify them positively. They are all armed with handguns and at least one submachine gun.”
“Contact?” enquired the junior Minister.
“We are communicating by morse directly with the cockpit. One bit of luck the highjackers hadn’t taken account of,” answered Carignan.
“Bloody lucky!” opined Dubray.
“We also know that Jahdari, one of the two other brothers is on board and it’s quite possible that the fourth brother, Talal is with them.”
“How the hell did they manage to smuggle weapons on board the plane?” mused retired army General Viktor Picard, the Director General of the National Gendarmerie, head of one of the two national police forces.
“We’ve been in touch with Aiport Security at Athens Airport. They believe it was one of the cleaning staff who was on duty in the Departure Hall prior to the flight.”
“Have they questioned him?” asked Picard.
“They couldn’t. According to the police, he’s disappeared. Appears he was using a bogus address and we also have to assume a fake identity.”
“And are they still sticking to their demands,” asked General Picard.
“Yes,” replied Carignan, “they are insisting on the unconditional release of Mourad Akbar and the other three, Mahmood Khadir, Tarik Rahuoi and Omar Salah.”
The Minister stood up and walked over to one of the two tall windows overlooking the courtyard. The rest sat in silence, waiting. “What’s the passenger mix?” he asked eventually turning away from the window.
Leo Artigue, the Deputy Minister, opened a file and read from a list, “106 Greek nationals; 25 British; 12 Greek Cypriots; 8 Turkish; 7 Germans; 6 Jordanians; 4 Italians; 3 Egyptians; 3 Lebanese; 2 Libyans; 2 South Africans; 1 Swede and 1 American, making a total of 180.” He looked up from the document. “Add to that the 6 Greek cabin crew.”
“Not one Frenchman,” noted Maurice Dubray of the Paris Police Prefecture.
“Nor any Algerian nationals,” added Rikard Carignan, “which means they are travelling with fake passports and false identities and could be any four of the adult males on that list.”
“What about children?”
“According to the passenger manifest, there’s no-one under sixteen-years-of-age.”
“Well that’s something,” someone remarked.
“Did we get anything further from Athens?”
“Unfortunately not, Minister, other than the passenger listing. The country’s excessively porous borders and weak immigration controls would have made it relatively easy for them to get into the country and then take the flight to London,” said the Director of the GDES. “They’ve been pretty clever picking this flight and not a French airline.”
“How do you mean?” interrupted the head of the Central Directorate of General Intelligence – the intelligence service of the French Police. Until then the bespectacled, balding man had only listened impassively.
“I assume,” interjected the Minister before Rikard Carignan could respond, “the Director is suggesting that besides the highjackers, we have to deal with the intervention and possible outrage of the nations whose citizens are on board. If we don’t handle this right, this could easily escalate into an international disaster ending in unprecedented embarrassment for our country.”
“We have already been inundated with calls from the various foreign offices demanding to know what’s happening and suggesting, in some cases in no uncertain terms, that we will be held accountable if any harm was to befall any of their nationals,” sighed the junior Minister of International Affairs.
“There is the other issue.” All eyes were on Rikard Carignan. “Olympic Airlines, although it’s privately owned by the Greek shipowner, Aristotle Onassis, it’s also the Greek nation’s de facto flag carrier and as such…”
“Is regarded as the sovereign nation’s soil, even though the aircraft is sitting on the tarmac in an airport in the middle of France,” interrupted the bearded, scholarly looking man at the end of the table.
“My apologies, Director Carignan, I failed to introduce you. The gentleman who has just added fuel to our fire is Dr Paquette, head of our International Law department.”
“Thank you, Minister. Regrettably, gentlemen, we are placed in a rather awkward legal position as the legal constructs that apply in this sort of case are somewhat murky. I have already spoken with my counterpart in Greece, and he concurs.”
“Concurs with what?” asked an exasperated General Picard.
“That there is no established precedent in international law that we can refer to.”
“So I take it that we don’t know how we stand legally?” the head of the French armed forces intervened.
“What is the Greek government saying?” another question from one of the attendees.
“They’re undecided and said that they’ll get back to us.”
“When?” exclaimed the director of the PPP. “It’s not like we have all the time in the world.”
“I should also advise you..,” the Minister pondered for a few moments before continuing, “we have approached the Algerian government for their assistance, but given our fractious association over recent history, they are reluctant to collaborate. There are, of course, a small number of sympathetic players in their government who would be willing to push for support. However, their consensus is that there is still some way to go before our two countries could resume diplomatic relations.”
“What about their involvement with the highjacking of the El Al Israel Airlines flight by the Palestinians back in 1968?” General Pickard reminded the group.
“Unfortunately, the circumstances are totally different here. The highjackers deliberately routed the plane to Algiers, giving the Algerians no option other than to resolve the matter directly. We should also bear in mind that Algeria is a Muslim country with sympathies for brother nations.”
There ensued a silence around the table, each member contemplating his department or agency’s inclusion and contribution. The imposing figure of Jacque Deschamps, retired Air Corps General of the French airforce and Minister of the Armed Forces (Ministry of Defence) leant forward on his elbows. “So what does the chief say?” he asked, referring to Georges Pompidou, the President of the French Republic.
“It should come as no surprise that he is emphatic on this point. There will be no surrender of the prisoners,” answered the Minister abruptly.
“I agree with that policy,” scoffed the head of France’s armed forces lighting up a rather large cigar and sitting back.
“Who is in contact with the highjackers?” asked the Minister.
“We have a capable man in Gilbert Lamarque at the airport maintaining a dialogue with Akbar. He’s not alone. There are representatives from other agencies working with him,” answered Rikard Carignan.
The head of armed forces exhaled a plume of thick cigar smoke over the table, “So I suppose it falls on me to ask the ultimate question.” He paused briefly to ensure he had everyone’s attention. “What the hell do we do if we are unable to reach an acceptable conclusion?”
“Director?” the Minister gestured for Rikard Carignan to respond.
“We don’t have any previous experience in this sort of situation,” he responded, “and if we were to refer to the highjacking the General mentioned, that particular standoff lasted for forty days - eventually resulting in a release of sixteen convicted Arab prisoners. If we were not to release Mourad Akbar and his associates, who knows what his brothers would do. It’s my opinion that they would make a final stand here. In their minds they would have no other choice. We have to assume that they wouldn’t abandon their intentions having taken it this far. This would leave us with only one option..,” he paused as he stubbed out the Gauloises cigarette he had been smoking. “We would have to retake the aircraft.” He caught the General slowly nodding his agreement.
“Gentlemen,” said the Minister, “in light of the information we have, albeit somewhat less than desired, we now need to consider the dilemma we are faced with and contemplate our options. I am to meet with the President after this meeting and then report to the Council of Ministers, which is convening an emergency session this evening at ten o’clock.” There was a long pause as he poured himself a glass of water from the crystal jug set on a side cabinet. He walked back to the head of the table and sat down. “So gentlemen, who’s going to start?”
The assembled dignitaries conferred for almost two hours before the Minister put his hands up motioning for everyone to cease discussions. “Gentlemen, I think we’ve thrashed the subject enough for the time being, and at least now I have several opinions and suggestions to lay out for consideration later. Meanwhile, Director Carignan, as the man heading this operation on the ground, what should we do in the immediate term?”
He looked around at the faces staring back at him then said, “As there is no intention to accede to the highjacker’s demands, we have no choice other than to continue to stall.”
“How long do you believe we can keep that up?” asked the Minister.
“Until they decide to carry out their threat,” answered the Director of The General Directorate for External Security.
A compelling and gritty thriller.