My scoop with Idi Amin

Veteran columnist Uri Dan, who died a year ago, interviewed the ruthless dictator shortly after Entebbe.

idi amin 88 (photo credit: )
idi amin 88
(photo credit: )
Veteran Jerusalem Post columnist died one year ago today. This column originally appeared on July 6, 2006 A short while after the Israeli commando force rescued the Israeli hostages held in Entebbe 30 years ago, I interviewed Idi Amin, the ruthless dictator who ruled the African nation of Uganda during the 1970s. It was the first and last interview he gave after the IDF killed his Palestinian and German terrorist proteges. "I am carrying the bodies of my soldiers in my arms," Idi Amin wailed. "What have you done to me? I treated the hostages so nicely - I gave them soup, soap and toilet paper." I still have most of Amin's pathetic half-hour interview on tape. It was an hour after midnight in distant Uganda on July 4, 1976. Amin sounded stunned and frightened, and in fact questioned me in Israel to find out more details about what had happened. Because at that very hour, when the Israel Air Force Hercules cargo planes were on their way home, Israel had not yet made public the fact that it had succeeded in freeing the hostages in its brilliant commando raid. My interview with Amin, which was of course given a banner headline on the front page of Ma'ariv, was quoted throughout the world. As a result, the Bantam and Keter publishing houses came out with Ninety Minutes at Entebbe, written by this writer together with William Stevenson. Of course, at the marking of the 30th anniversary of that magnificent commando operation, I am proud to discuss my own journalistic achievement, one that unfortunately served to reinforce my media colleagues' envy and hatred of me. At the time, I was chief of correspondents and military commentator for Ma'ariv, then Israel's most widely circulated newspaper. But no less importantly, the massive sales of my book clearly demonstrated how powerfully Israel's policy - that it would refuse to give in to terror - resonated throughout the world. Indeed, the operation was the result of a daring decision on the part of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the army's outstanding capability to carry it out. IN THE context of my work as a reporter covering army and intelligence affairs, I try to find out as early as possible about extraordinary operations, which I of course keep to myself until it is permitted to make them public, so that I can come out with the detailed story right away, while the others are still recovering from their surprise at what has happened. I knew about the Entebbe operation ahead of time. I had bumped into Brig.-Gen. Dan Shomron, the chief paratrooper officer, at a private party held on the evening of June 29, 1976. For the previous three days, the world had been holding its breath in fear for the fate of the hostages of the Air France plane that had been hijacked to Entebbe. The general feeling at that time was that the Israeli government would capitulate to the hijackers' demands. After all, Entebbe was so far away; how could anyone get there? I asked Dan Shomron if that feeling on the part of the public was correct. Dan, to his credit, immediately responded that in his opinion it was possible to rescue the hostages in a military operation - if the government were to give the order to the army to do so. And indeed, if the army does not instill the government with the confidence that such an operation is feasible, I added, the government might capitulate to the terrorists' demands. It was Dan Shomron who convinced then chief of General Staff Mordechai Gur, and they both went to Rabin to convince him that "there is a military option." Yonatan Netanyahu, the brilliant head of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, volunteered to lead the operation. I kept my eye on matters and learned that the operation was to be launched on Saturday, July 3. I didn't say a word to anyone. I only mentioned to my colleague at Ma'ariv, Tommy Lapid, that there was a possibility that the hostages might be rescued by force. In response, he sneered in his usual rude manner saying, "You and your friend Arik Sharon are delusional nutcases." In the meantime, I collected every available scrap of information so that my newspaper would have the most complete story when the time came, in the hope that the operation would be a success. The lives of so many people hung in the balance. Only when I discovered from my sources that the operation was over and that it would be a few hours until an official announcement would be made did I alert Shalom Rosenfeld, Ma'ariv's editor in chief, and make my phone call to Idi Amin. UGANDA'S murderer-president came on the line only after I had duped him and his assistant, with much glee I might add, into thinking that I had a copy of Ma'ariv right in front of me with a headline blaring: "Hostages rescued in Israeli commando raid. Idi Amin himself participated in the operation." In other words, the moment I related to Idi Amin at the start of the interview as one of the "good guys," he broke into his monologue and was willing to respond to my questions. "What, it's already in the papers?" was his first comment. Today, too, it is clear that as the IDF is once again fighting Palestinian terror in Gaza, it has field soldiers and commanders of a caliber similar to those who fought in Entebbe. The accumulated experience of the past 30 years, the highly improved sophisticated military equipment, but most importantly, the younger generations of soldiers now serving in the Israel Defense Forces are all a guarantee that today's soldiers are in every way the equal of the Entebbe commandos. If there is good intelligence, as there was in Entebbe, and if the army's top command bolsters the government's courage, Israel will ultimately vanquish the Hamas.