The assassination of prominent Egyptian writer and journalist Youssef Sebai in February 1978 was only the beginning of an ordeal that went from a hostage crisis to a conflict that would mark a diplomatic fallout between Egypt and Cyprus that lasted for years.
Sebai, who was also a friend of the late Anwar Sadat, was in Nicosia attending a convention for the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organization. Prior to his speech as the organisation’s chair, Sebai was assassinated by two assailants, a Jordanian and a Kuwaiti.
Following Sebai’s assassination, the two assailants kidnapped a few dozen hostages, and demanded to be transferred to Larnaca International Airport where they released some of the hostages and were provided with an airplane upon their demand. Thus began the start of a hostage situation.
The two assailants boarded the plane with 12 hostages, including four Egyptians, three Palestinians, two Syrians, one Moroccan, one Sudanese, and one Somali. Two of the hostages were also officials at the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).
With all of the hostages on board, the plane was granted permission to fly but was denied permission to land in Libya, Yemen, and Djibouti, forcing the plane to return to Cyprus.
The Cypriot president at the time, Spyros Kyprianou, agreed to allow a PLO delegation of 16 fighters to assist with the rescue operation following negotiations with Yasser Arafat. Kyprianou also promised his Egyptian counterpart Sadat that they would follow up on the negotiations and rescue operation. For Sadat, however, this was not enough.
Angered not only by the gravity of the situation but also the death of Sebai, Sadat ordered for an elite antiterrorism unit, Task Force 777, to land in Larnaca and begin a rescue operation without Cyrpus’ permission.
Egyptian forces landed in Larnaca with Cyprus’ permission, as it was believed that a government official was on board hoping to assist with negotiations. The Egyptian forces disembarked and approached the aircraft containing the hostage crisis and surrounded it with armed men, aggravating the Cypriots who were in the midst of negotiating with the two gunmen on board. All the while traffic at the airport continued to proceed as normal.
Cypriot forces warned the Egyptian unit against advancing, asking them to return to their plane. As the antiterrorism unit continued to defy Cypriot orders and encircle the plane, firing shots at the cockpit, clashes erupted between Egyptian and Cypriot forces on the ground.
Cyrpus claimed that Egypt had not only disobeyed a command, but defied the country’s sovereignty by engaging in the situation in a hostile manner without permission.
A back and forth gun battle between the Egyptians and Cypriots resulted in the Egyptian air craft being destroyed by an anti-tank missile, which killed the three crew members on board.
While it is unclear what actions led to the gun battle between the two sides, the United Nations claims it boiled down to a breakdown in communication. Egypt sustained the most losses in the gun battle, which resulted in the death of 15 Egyptians from Task Force 777 and over a dozen wounded. There were no Cypriot fatalities.
Following a cessation of fire, British negotiators successfully convinced the two gunmen to surrender and the hostages were then released.
For Egypt and Cyprus, however, the damage was done. The two countries severed ties after the incident, and relations did not resume until after the assassination of Sadat in 1981.