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Skyjacking seizes place in man's memory

Twenty years ago, Ralph Crawford sat in a remote airport control tower and watched one of the era's most dramatic terrorist episodes unfold.

On Oct. 13, 1977, two men and two women connected to Palestinian terror groups and the radical Red Army Faction skyjacked a Lufthansa airliner somewhere over the French Riviera.

More than 100 hours later, after landing five times at European and African airports, Flight 181 sat alongside a runway in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Inside, 82 passengers and four crew members waited and prayed. Already, the screaming skyjackershad executed the German pilot, threatened to kill three Jewish girls, tied the hostages' hands, and seemed ready to blow up the plane.

Crawford, now retired and a Point Brittany resident, was attached to the U.S. embassy and represented the U.S. Information Agency under the title of counselor of the embassy for public affairs.

During a varied military and foreign service career, Crawford spent time in Europe, the Far East and Africa. He lectured in schools, escorted dignitaries such as Henry Kissinger and celebrities such as Duke Ellington; he taught seminars on computer technology and American films.

He and his wife, Leonie, edited English-language newspapers in Europe. Crawford was a Voice of America correspondent, directed and appeared in plays _ including a lead role in Harvey _ and was a professional book reader for the Library of Congress.

But his most gripping episode was the Mogadishu hostage drama.

"I can't overstate that it's the biggest thing that ever happened to us," said Crawford, now 77. "And we've had so many adventures."

Dr. Michael Libal, the German charge d'affaires in Mogadishu, negotiated with the terrorists. He invited Crawford to sit in the control tower, perhaps 100 yards from the plane. Aboard it was an American woman with a heart condition and her 5-year-old son.

Crawford could hear the terrorist leader, who called himself "Captain Mahmoud," shouting on the radio.

"It was mostly, "Nazi. Dirty Nazis. All you Germans are against us,' " Crawford recalled. "The question was, "When are you going to release our brothers and sisters?' "

The terrorists were demanding that the West German government release 11 German prisoners, all members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang (Red Army Faction) and fly them to Mogadishu.

Libal kept stalling them, as a plane carrying German commandos winged toward the scene.

Crawford helped. At one point he arranged for juice and other relief supplies to be sent to the plane. The hostages had been trapped for nearly five days in a hot cabin with little food and water and no functioning toilets.

Crawford was resting when his phone rang. The news: The commandos had landed, stormed the plane and freed all the hostages. They had killed three terrorists.

Hurrying to the tarmac, Crawford greeted the hostages, who wereembracing, crying and frolicking in the spray of fire hoses a Somali fire department supplied for an impromptu cleanup.

The American, Christine Santiago, "was beside herself with joy. Her son got a Coke right away. Everybody had something. People from all the embassies were bringing food and gifts."

Crawford carried a bottle of Scotch and shared a toast with the German copilot, who had flown the plane after the pilot was killed.

Leaving the plane on a stretcher was one of the female terrorists who was wounded, but survived. Crawford recalled her wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt and raising one hand to flash a V sign.

He also recalled one of the rescue leaders telling him later that the plane, by amazing coincidence, was the same plane the commandos had used to practice an operation _ not the just same model Boeing 737, but the very same aircraft.

Twenty years later, Crawford sees the incident as an important chapter in the war on terrorism. At the time, skyjackings had created worldwide tension about airline terrorism. A year earlier, Israeli commandos had successfully rescued a plane in Uganda during the famous Entebbe raid.

Mogadishu underscored the idea that terrorists could be confronted and defeated.

"I still think it was a defining moment in the war on international terrorism," Crawford said. "It meant new light for us, (an increase in) the level of assistance and cooperation governments were giving to each other."

Afterward, Crawford said he "zoomed back and filed a story to the Voice of America and the U.S. Information Agency," using embassy facilities.

He was able to scoop the world.