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Terrorists turn '72 Munich Olympics into bloodbath

Eleven Israeli athletes are killed during daylong siege. Airport shootout also leaves 5 captors, 1 policeman dead.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 29, 1999


Time was, wars were suspended during the Olympics and armies prohibited from attacking the ancient Games. Truces permitted worshippers and athletes to travel safely.

Times change.

Modern Olympics have been suspended for two world wars.

At 4:30 a.m. Sept. 5, 1972, war, politics and religion invaded the Munich Olympics.

Terrorists claiming to be from Black September, a Palestinian guerrilla group, stole into the Olympic Village dressed as athletes and carrying their weapons in gym bags. They killed two Israelis and took nine hostage.

The terrorists demanded the release of 200 Arab guerrillas jailed in Israel and safe passage for themselves and the hostages. By 11 p.m. the hostages, five of their captors and one West German police officer were dead, the outcome of a failed rescue attempt. Three Arabs were captured.

During the siege, with two Israelis already dead, Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, ordered that the Games continue.

"Walled off in their dream world," New York Times columnist Red Smith wrote, "appallingly unaware of the realities of life and death, the aging playground directors who conduct this quadrennial muscle dance ruled that a little blood must not be permitted to interrupt play."

The following day, competition was suspended. The 11 surviving Israeli Olympians, wearing white yarmulkes and maroon blazers, sat among 3,000 athletes, surrounded by 80,000 spectators, honoring and mourning their murdered teammates in a memorial service at the enormous Olympic Stadium.

Five hours later, Brundage decreed that the Games resume, another controversial decision criticized by Israel and other nations, though some Israelis said canceling the Games would have been giving in to blackmail. Also controversial: a pre-Olympic decision by Israel to deal with its security concerns without special treatment from West Germany.

From various accounts, this is what took place that Tuesday in September:

The assault on 31 Connolly St., one of the buildings at the Olympic Village, began at about 5 a.m. with a knock on the door of 33-year-old wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg. He opened it a crack, saw the attackers, put his shoulder to the door and shouted, "Boys, get out!" Weightlifting coach Tuvia Sokolsky said that as he fled, he saw Weinberg hit by a hail of bullets through the door.

Weinberg was ordered to lead the terrorists to other Israeli rooms. He pointed to one with wrestlers and weightlifters, hoping they could overpower the attackers. Then he collapsed and died.

Joseph Romano, 32, a weightlifter, was next to die, also by automatic rifle fire. By now, other Israelis were being warned of the attack. Six escaped through a rear door. Three hundred armed police officers sealed off the area. Brundage and other Olympic officials convened. The siege began.

At 9:35 a.m. the terrorists issued their demands. Negotiations with Munich police chief Manfred Schreiber, in charge of Olympic security, commenced. The Arabs set a noon deadline. They said two Israelis would be shot if the demands were not met.

The deadline was set back to 1 p.m., then 3, then 5, then the Arabs canceled it. Negotiations dragged on. The terrorists rejected an offer of unlimited ransom. They rejected an offer by Schreiber that he and two high-ranking officials take the hostages' place. In Israel, Premier Golda Meir said her government stood by its policy of not dealing with terrorists.

Schreiber said he believed the building could not be successfully stormed, that the terrorists were desperate and would not relent no matter how many lives were lost. He and his colleagues spent the afternoon devising plans to get the Arabs and Israelis out. At dusk, the terrorists said they would consider leaving with the hostages.

Negotiators began trying to persuade the terrorists they could leave West Germany safely. But they were working under Brundage's instructions not to let the Arabs leave with the hostages.

A helicopter pad was hastily built nearby. The Tunisian ambassador obtained permission from his government to let a plane carrying the hostages and terrorists land at a Tunisian airfield.

At 8 p.m. a bus pulled up to 31 Connolly St. The Arab leader demanded a different green army bus "so there was no chance to do anything," Schreiber said later. "They were too clever."

At 8:50 p.m. the first of three helicopters landed at the Olympic Village. Meanwhile, a Lufthansa 737 was flown to the military air base at Furstenfeldbruck, 15 miles west of the village.

At 9 p.m. West German Chancellor Willy Brandt phoned President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt. Premier Aziz Sidky reportedly took the call and, when asked for help, told Brandt, "We do not want to get involved in this" and hung up.

A minute or two after 10 p.m., the terrorists and hostages emerged from the building, the Israelis bound, blindfolded and tied close together. "This made it impossible to try anything with sharpshooters inside the village," Schreiber recalled. Weightlifters David Berger, 26, and Zeev Friedman, 28; weightlifting instructor Yacob Springer, 51; wrestlers Eliezer Halfin, 28, and Mark Slavin, 18; wrestling referee Yosef Gutfreund, 41; fencing coach Andre Spitzer, 45; athletics coach Amitzur Shapira, 32, and marksmanship coach Kehat Schorr, 53, were herded into the bus. Schreiber and two officials rode with them to the helicopters. The West Germans boarded one, the terrorists and hostages the others. They landed at Furstenfeldbruck at 10:30 p.m.

The pilots had been told the West Germans would try to rescue the Israelis because allowing the Arabs to leave with them "would have been a certain death sentence for the hostages," Bruno Merk, interior minister of Bavaria, said. What happened was not what the pilots expected. The Arabs told them to stand in front of their aircraft, breaking a promise that West Germans would not be involved as hostages. Two Arabs and one or more Israelis walked the 170 yards to the plane for an inspection. They were walking back when one or more sharpshooters hidden in the darkness fired. In the ensuing firefight, the Arabs on the ground killed the Israelis with them. Other terrorists leaped from the helicopters. Several unleashed automatic fire into one, killing the Israelis inside. One of the terrorists tossed a hand grenade into the other helicopter, killing its occupants.

Five days later, in the rain, a subdued closing ceremony was held that included a silent meditation and fewer athletes than usual. The flags of the competing nations were paraded around the stadium. Israel's was not among them.


-- Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

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