TUNIS, Tunisia — Israeli warplanes swooped across the Mediterranean Sea on Tuesday and bombed the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization here, destroying the PLO complex and reportedly killing at least 36 people.
The U.S.-made F-16 jets mounted the raid to show that "there is no place in which terror organizations can be immune" from Israeli retaliation, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said in Tel Aviv.
Rabin said Israel retaliated for the Yom Kippur murder of three Israeli civilians in Larnaca, Cyprus, last week and for other recent terrorist attacks.
Longest Air Strike
On the raid, the longest air strike ever undertaken by the Israelis, the planes followed a nearly straight-line route from Israel for 1,300 miles across the Mediterranean to a seven-acre complex of PLO buildings on the Tunisian coast, in the Hamam Shatt suburb about 12 miles southeast of Tunis.
PLO leader Yasser Arafat had just returned to Tunis from a trip to Morocco but was not at the compound when it came under attack. He and an aide later toured the devastated site, where his political headquarters, his residence and the homes of several PLO officials were destroyed. PLO Secretary General Abu Abbas vowed to retaliate, saying, "We will hit very hard."
The Tunisian government, regarded as one of the most moderate and conservative in the Arab world, denounced the raid as a violation of its sovereignty, and Tunisia called for an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council to denounce the Israelis for the attack.
According to witnesses, a flight of jets appeared over Tunis Bay after fog lifted at 10:15 a.m. It appeared that two jets dropped the bombs while others circled nearby, the witnesses said.
Windows shook in homes far across the bay in Carthage, where Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba has his presidential palace.
Fathi Ouidi, an official of the Tunisian Information Ministry, said one 3,000-pound bomb was dropped, followed by four 1,000-pound bombs. He said it was not clear just how many planes were involved.
The F-16s were refueled in midair on their way back to their bases, Israeli sources said, and Israeli navy ships were reportedly deployed far out in the Mediterranean to assist any aircraft that might run into trouble. Military sources said that all planes returned safely and that their pilots reported direct hits on all targets.
Confusion Over Losses
There was great confusion here over the exact loss of life, as the Tunisian government clamped security around the bombed area and at the hospitals to which the wounded were taken.
But, as the films on Tunisian government television made clear, there was little doubt that damage was extensive. The TV shots showed only ravaged buildings and enormous stretches of flattened rubble where the PLO complex had once stood.
The PLO has made its headquarters here since it was driven from Beirut in 1982 by Israeli forces.
Noting that the bombs had dug out a crater, Ouidi, the Tunisian official, said bitterly in an interview, "If the Israelis wanted to build us a football stadium, they could not have done a better job."
Ouidi, reading from an official government report, said 36 people were killed in the raid and 60 wounded, 25 seriously. But other reports, including that of the PLO, put the death toll as high as 60. Ouidi said Tunisian civilians were among those killed, and other sources said at least one of the dead was a member of Force 17, Arafat's elite bodyguard.
Only Weizman Opposed
In Tel Aviv, Israeli military officials provided only sketchy details of the operation, but informed sources said it was approved late last week by the "inner Cabinet" of 10 senior ministers. Only Ezer Weizman, a minister without portfolio, voted against the plan, which was drafted at the initiative of Rabin, the sources said.
Tuesday's attack was believed to be the first by Israel on the territory of a country with which it is not technically at war.
Rabin declared that "we have nothing against Tunisia." He said Israel's targets were PLO facilities that have, in effect, "extraterritorial status" in the North African country.
"We cannot tolerate . . . immunity for the PLO because they are located in countries which are not active against Israel," Rabin said.
'Israel Will Wage War'
"As long as PLO terror or any other terror acts against Israel, Israel will wage war against it," Rabin told newsmen. "Israel will determine the method of warfare, the place of the strike, in accordance with its judgment and its judgment only."
Rabin said Israel had given no notice to the United States of its intentions to launch the Tunis attack. "The decision was taken by Israel," he said. "We informed friendly countries, including the United States, only after the mission was accomplished."