October 26, 2003 (by Lieven Dewitte) - The Israeli F-16 pilots who carried out the air force raid near Damascus three weeks ago said their bombs caused huge secondary explosions since they scored direct hits on ammunition bunkers.
In an exclusive anatomy of the October 5 air strike, the Israeli Air Force Magazine quotes pilots and officers of the "Northern Knights" F-16 squadron describing their preparations and descriptions of the attack.
The magazine also published before and after aerial photos of what Israel
said was a training base used to train Islamic Jihad and Hamas terrorists, a dozen kilometers north of the Syrian capital. The attack came on the eve of Yom Kippur and was in retaliation for a suicide bombing in a restaurant in Haifa which killed 21 people.
The magazine detailed how the squadron officers were quickly assembled from around the country, draw plans dusted off and precedent-setting mission accomplished in less than 12 hours from the time of the suicide bombing.
Squadron leader Lt.-Col. Z was on his way with to eat at a restaurant off of the base when the guard at the door of the restaurant told him of the terrible attack in Haifa. A few moments later he phoned the squadron and told them to start making preliminary preparations in case they were required to attack.
The atmosphere at the base, in the northern part of the country, became charged when aircrews and flight technicians started flowing in along with the reports of the severity of the suicide bombing.
By evening, the draft plans had become operational and the Northern Knights went into war mode.
Maj. Avi Elmoiel, the squadron's technical officer responsible for preparing and arming the fighter jets, he got word something was up while eating lunch in Tiberius.
He made a few short telephone calls to reach get the technical teams who were at home to the squadron. The orders were to arm the aircraft.
The IAF maintains the bulk of its aircraft in a constant state of readiness. In fact, the Northern Knights squadron was reportedly able to "deliver" the jets for this particular mission half an hour before the deadline, the bimonthly magazine said.
As the jets were being armed and fueled, the pilots and weapons specialists were in the briefing room pouring over the maps and aerial photos of the target. Standing out among the arrows and colored marks were a number of small marks that had been circled: these indicated areas protected by surface-to-air (SAM
) missile batteries.
"This was a strike in a hostile area with all its ramifications," Lt.-Col. Z said. "We knew what we were getting into, an attack near the Syrian capital and we planned for all possible scenarios, including anti-aircraft fire and interceptors. We knew the targets well and took off with the knowledge that we had the best jets with the most suitable weapons for the mission."
When the squadron commander said they had the most suitable weapons, he meant every word. He told he magazine that they chose precision guided bombs instead of dumb bombs because it was imperative not to miss.
"Not everyone knows this, but just 100 meters from the valley where the training base was located were houses from a civilian village. We needed to have absolute accuracy," he said.
Lt.-Col. Z, who personally led the mission, said they were concerned with the proximity of the civilians to the base, but were confident their strike would be on target.
By 3 a.m. the F-16s taxied on the runway and took off for what would be the first aggressive air strike deep in Syrian territory since the Yom Kippur war 30 years ago.
The magazine did not say how many planes took part in the attack or give any indication that other squadrons flew cover.
"There was amazing and complete silence. Not a sound," Lt.-Col. Z said, recalling the moment when they crossed the border. "All of your senses become sharpened when you enter a hostile zone, your fingers run over the various switches and prepare the weapons for that critical moment. Outside the cockpit we could clearly see the lights of Damascus. I passed on the last radio instructions to the planes in the formation and that was it."
He described their attack, saying the terrorists hope of finding protection inside a deep valley proved futile as each jet dropped its bomb on target.
"Bull's-eye!," he said. "The explosions were very large and full of fire. The secondary explosions that followed a few seconds later proved that the place was an ammo dump and full of weapons."
Back on the base, the technicians were biting their nails. They were not told where the heavily armed jets had been sent to strike. It was only when the pilots returned safely and climbed down with huge grins on their faces that they found out.
"Only when the last jet touched down did I feel a huge weight lift off my shoulders," Elmoiel said. "I have been part of a lot of strikes in my life, but for me this was THE attack. To see all of these jets return safely to base, their bomb racks empty and knowing that they had hit their targets, well there is no better feeling than that."