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Mon, Oct 13, 2003

Window On A Mystery: Israeli Pilot Details Attack On USS Liberty

"It Was A Mistake"

By ANN Correspondent Dave Bender

For the first time, we're getting details of a mystery attack by Israeli warplanes against an American ship, the USS Liberty, during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The details come from the pilot who instigated the mistaken raid.

"There was a mistake. Mistakes happen. As far as I know, the mistake was of the USS Liberty being there in the first place," said Brigadier Gen. Yiftah Spector. The Jerusalem Post reports he was given the boot by the Israeli Air Force after protesting the policy of "target killings" against Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Spector was flying a Mirage III fighter jet code named "Kursa" (English: couch). He was the first pilot to reach the ship, about 20 nautical miles west of Gaza. Spector had been on a combat air patrol mission. His Mirage carried no air-to-ground ordnance. The Liberty was a US military intel-gathering ship actually sent to support the Israelis in their war against Syria, Egypt and other Arab countries. The Israeli air strikes against the Liberty killed 34 US sailors and wounded 172.

"I did not fire on the Liberty as a human target. I was sent to attack a sailing vessel. This ship was on an escape route from the El Arish area, which at that same moment had heavy smoke rising from it," Spector said. "It was thought to be an Egyptian vessel. This ship positively did not have any symbol or flag that I could see. What I was concerned with was that it was not one of ours. I looked for the symbol of our navy, which was a large white cross on its deck," he told the Jerusalem Post. "This was not there, so it wasn't one of ours."

Spector is 63 now. He's a triple-ace who took part in the 1981 raid on a nuclear plant in Iraq when Israel strongly suspected Saddam Hussein was enriching uranium. Ilan Ramon was the youngest pilot on that mission. Earlier this year, Ramon, Israel's first man in space, died with six other astronauts, in the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia.

IAF archival recordings of the pilots' radio transmission during the 1967 attack on the Liberty were obtained by the Post. They show Spector was specifically told to verify that the ship was a military vessel and not Israeli.

According to the June 8, 1967, radio transmission, Spector said: "I can't identify it but in any case it's a military ship."

Thirty-six years later, he told the newspaper, "I circled it twice and it did not fire on me. My assumption was that it was likely to open fire at me and nevertheless I slowed down and I looked and there was positively no flag. Just to make sure I photographed it," said Spector, who retired from active duty as a brigadier-general in 1984.

The IAF, however, indicates the only photos taken of the ship were from Spector's gun cameras, which automatically switched on whenever he fired.

"I was told on the radio that it was an Egyptian ship off the Gaza coast. Hit it. The luck of the ship was that I was armed only with light ammunition [30mm] against aircraft. If I had had a bomb it would be sitting on the bottom today like the Titanic. I promise you," Spector said.

"The crew should be thankful for their luck [that I was on an air-to-air mission and did not have any bombs]. It is a pity we attacked. I'm sorry for poor Capt. (William Loren) McGonagle, who was wounded in the leg and the other guys who were killed and wounded."

He said he had never in the past 36 years met with any of the Liberty survivors. Still, Spector said he has no qualms about meeting them now.

"They must understand that a mistake was made here. The fool is one who wanders about in the dark in dangerous places, so they should not come with any complaints."

If that sounds a bit harsh, consider this: "I'm sorry for the mistake. Years later my mates dropped flowers on the site where the ship was attacked," Spector said.

"I'm the last guy who has a problem with admitting mistakes and asking for forgiveness. There was a mistake, but it wasn't my mistake."

FMI: www.idf.il/english/organization/iaf/iaf.stm

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