- LOD AIR FORCE BASE, Israel
(Reuters) - Secret on-board defenses, not pure luck, may have saved an
Israeli airliner from being shot down over Kenya by two missiles, intelligence
and arms experts said Friday.
- The Boeing 757-300 Arkia passenger jet narrowly evaded
two heat-seeking missiles on takeoff from the city of Mombasa on Thursday,
raising speculation it had used decoy flares -- countermeasures akin to
those of combat aircraft.
- "Israel has been working on programs to protect
civil aviation from terrorist missile attacks since the 1970s," said
Yigal Eyal, a Hebrew University lecturer on insurgency and former Israeli
- "The Mombasa incident could mark a successful application
of some sort of anti-missile technology aboard the plane," he said.
- Israeli aviation authorities said strict security procedures
governed flights such as the one attacked by Soviet-era "Strela"
missiles fired by suspected pro-Palestinian militants with shoulder-mounted
launchers. The plane, which had 261 people aboard, was not hit.
- "Our procedure is to look at the worst possible
scenario, and the way we acted was according to Israeli security instructions,"
said Arkia CEO Israel Borovich.
- "Israeli evasive security is the best in the world,"
he added, declining to elaborate.
- Arkia is a private airline but its security is overseen
by Israel's Shin Bet intelligence agency and held to the same tough standards
for which national carrier El Al is renowned.
- A source familiar with El Al procedures said several
of its planes had in recent years been fitted with electronic sensors,
aft and rear, capable of detecting incoming missiles.
- The Israeli mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth said
on Friday that national arms manufacturer Rafael has developed scramblers
which throw missile-guidance systems off course and are tailored for civilian
- MOMBASA MISSILES DEFLECTED?
- Such technology would be useless against the relatively
antiquated Strela missile, which locks on to a jet's exhaust heat rather
than its radar profile or flight trajectory.
- Since the Cold War, the missiles have been peddled widely
in the developing world.
- A shoulder-launched Strela was used in an attack by rebels
in Chechnya that brought down a Russian Mi-26 army transport helicopter
in August killing 118 people.
- Kenyan television footage showed a Strela launcher abandoned
near the Mombasa airstrip Thursday. It was painted blue -- the color of
practice ordnance in many militaries -- indicating it may have been sub-standard
and stolen from an army base.
- Israeli military sources said booty Strelas from the
1973 Middle East war are used in training but at times prove duds.
- Older models were primitive and sometimes thrown off
course by ground heat, analysts said.
- "This could just be a matter of Strelas being too
primitive for the job, and missing," said one Israeli security source.
- But others said both Strelas missing the airliner at
an altitude of 500 feet was unlikely unless countermeasures such as flares
were deployed by the aircraft.
- This would conform to one passenger's description of
a small "explosion" above one of the plane's wings during the
attack, even though the pilot told reporters the missiles passed more than
330 feet away and disappeared into the horizon.
- An Arkia spokeswoman said the reported flash of light
and accompanying jolt happened at the back of the plane, but declined comment
on the discrepancy with the pilot's testimony.
- Arkia has two Boeing 757-300s in its fleet. One of them
served as Israel Air Force One in May when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
used it for a state visit to Washington.
- The Arkia spokeswoman declined to say whether Flight
582 was the jet used by Sharon and his entourage six months ago.
- In an apparent reference to such missions, Israeli air
force commander Maj.-Gen. Dan Halutz told reporters that countermeasure
technology was available.
- "It is not installed on most commercial aircraft,
only on select ones," he said.
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