A plane carrying Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat was reported missing Tuesday night in bad weather over a remote area of the Libyan desert, according to the official Libyan news agency and PLO sources.
Details of the plane's disappearance were not immediately available, but the Libyan news agency Jana reported that the plane vanished 45 miles from the southeastern Libyan town of Sarra.
PLO sources in Arafat's office in Tunis, Tunisia, confirmed to the Associated Press that the plane had disappeared in a severe sandstorm, but offered few details.
"We're trying to find him now," said Bassam abu Sharif, Arafat's chief adviser, speaking seven hours after the plane had disappeared. He appealed to the United States, France, Italy, Britain and Egypt "to help with all possible means to locate the aircraft."
The British news agency Reuters, quoting sources in the Tunis office, said senior PLO officials were anxiously trying to establish Arafat's fate and were in "crisis session."
If the 62-year-old Arafat has been killed in a crash, the PLO would be left in a perilous state. Ranking members of the organization's executive committee and the Palestine National Council presumably would convene to choose a successor. No one has been designated by Arafat, who has commanded the fractious organization for more than two decades.
A PLO official in Cairo said that Arafat had been in neighboring Sudan and was expected to visit a Palestinian guerrilla camp at Sarra, 870 miles southeast of Tripoli, the Libyan capital. The British Broadcasting Corp. said Arafat was returning to Tunis after a 24-hour visit to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital.
The PLO official said the pilot of the plane made an unsuccessful landing attempt at the Sarra airport before telling the control tower that he would try a forced landing in the nearby desert, Reuters news agency was told. A Libyan Communications and Transport Ministry spokesman told the news agency that visibility in the area was down to about 300 yards.
"Whether they landed safely or not, we do not know yet," the PLO official said. "The weather was terrible."
A State Department official said the department was monitoring the situation but knew nothing beyond news reports. President Bush, returning to the White House from a concert Tuesday night, was asked if he had any news about Arafat and said, "I haven't heard a word since that original story."
Libyan civil aviation officials made appeals early today to the International Red Cross and operators of international satellites and weather stations for assistance in locating the plane, according to Libyan news reports.
Palestinian sources in Tripoli told the AP that Libyan rescue planes were searching for Arafat's plane, and airport sources in Aswan, Egypt, told Reuters that four Egyptian military planes were scheduled to join the search at dawn.
The Libyan news agency said radar contact with the aircraft, described by the PLO in Tunis as a Soviet-made, Algerian-registered Antonov transport plane, was lost at 8:45 p.m. local time (11:45 a.m. PDT). The plane disappeared over the Kufrah oasis, 70 miles northeast of Sarra, said Libya's Voice of the Greater Arab Homeland, quoting Jana, the Libyan news agency.
It was not known who was traveling with Arafat, who is both chairman of the PLO and president of the self-proclaimed state of Palestine. The PLO in Tunis reported that 12 people were aboard, including three crew members and a team of bodyguards and administrative assistants.
Sources at Arafat's office in Tunis refused to speculate as to what might have happened to the plane.
One source, contacted by the AP from Nicosia, Cyprus, said the plane was scheduled to land at an airstrip at Kufrah, near the Egyptian border, at about 8:45 p.m.
Contact with the plane was lost "a few minutes before then," the source said, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The oasis lies about 150 miles northwest of the Sudanese border and 900 miles southeast of Tripoli.
Other PLO sources, quoting Libyan authorities, said contact with the plane was lost during a sandstorm, but that the plane may well have "landed safely" in the desert, the AP reported.
The Algerian pilot of Arafat's plane, Mohammed Darwish, twice contacted Libyan air traffic controllers around 8:30 p.m. complaining of a heavy sandstorm and seeking clearance to land at a military air strip at Kufrah, PLO sources told the AP in Tunis.
The pilot was instructed instead to proceed to Sarra, where weather conditions were slightly better, the AP said. In his last communication with air traffic controllers, the pilot said he was headed for Sarra.
It was unclear whether the plane had a scheduled stop in Libya Tuesday night or if the attempted landing was an emergency. The PLO sources told the AP that Arafat often stopped to refuel at Kufrah when flying from Khartoum to Tunis.