Ultimatum, page 1
‘It is important to recognize that organized terrorism is a form of war – indeed it is rapidly becoming the most persistent and effective form of war.’
‘There is nothing more dangerously naïve than the belief that “it can’t happen here”.’
‘… advocates of the “soft” line argue that almost any concession within reach should be made if it saves one innocent life. Yet if terrorists’ blackmail succeeds once, it will certainly be tried again – with more dreadful threats and more extreme demands.’
in The Times, 10th April, 1975
By the Same Author
It was cold and dark and the rain came in swathes, carried by the wind. In the glare of the headlights it seemed to the driver in the transporter’s cab like the folds of a muslin curtain, opaque here, transparent there.
A loom of light showed over the hill and he saw the motorcycle escorts swerve in behind the leading Panhard AML scout car. The loom resolved itself into twin lights which came swiftly towards the convoy.
‘Bastard,’ growled the transporter’s driver. ‘Expect he’s drunk.’ The oncoming lights were dimmed and he said, ‘That’s better.’
‘He’s scared,’ said the lieutenant. ‘Seen the escorts?’
The car passed, going slowly now. A silver Mercedes with West German number plates.
‘Boche,’ said the transporter’s driver. ‘No wonder. They’re all pigs.’
The third man in the cab said, ‘That’s an old-fashioned view, Durand.’ His forced laugh didn’t hide the note of censure. Durand was silent. It was better not to cross swords with people like the superintendent. He concentrated on the road, glancing for a moment at the driving mirror where the rear escorts showed up wet and glistening in the Mercedes’ headlights, jets of spray leaping from their tyres, the motorcyclists weaving in behind the tailing Panhard, its armour bright with reflected light.
Above the noise of the transporter’s engine and the whine of wet tyres, Durand heard the voices of the armed guards in the bunker-space behind him. Two there, four more in the transporter itself. Except for the lieutenant all, like himself, men of the CRS – Corps Républicain de Sécurité; all, like himself, in civilian clothes.
It was a formidable escort for the grey packing cases in the big transporter, numerous as they were. It had been like that all the way from Carcassonne where the convoy had halted for the guards and escorts to change. That was where he’d taken over.
At the briefing they’d been told the operation had a high security classification. They’d not been told what was in the packing cases, nor where they’d come from. Presumably the men relieved outside Carcassonne knew that, but they wouldn’t have known where the convoy was going.
Clever, thought Durand. Well organized. But not his business. They’d been warned at the briefing not to talk. For him that had been unnecessary. He always kept his mouth shut. It had taken time to get to where he was. He wasn’t going to hazard that. He pulled at the harness of the shoulder-holster, easing the pressure under his arm. The superintendent lit a cigarette. Damn him, thought Durand. It’s a dirty habit. Stinking the cab out like that.
The rain fell more heavily, hissing down, crackling against the windscreen with a sound like breaking tinder. He switched the wipers to FAST, concentrating on the road, watching the tail-lights ahead looming and receding. A signpost showed up through the rain: N568: ARLES 43 KM – MARSEILLE 41 KM.
‘Forty-one kilometres to go,’ said the lieutenant. ‘Not long now.’
‘Slow part’s still to come,’ said Durand.
The superintendent switched on the map-light, held his wrist under it. ‘Ten to three,’ he said. ‘We’ll be there within the hour. Won’t be much traffic in the early morning.’
‘Hope you’re right.’
Discreet white lettering on the doors of the driving-cab indicated that the transporter was the property of François Berthon et Cie, Chatillon-sous-Bagneux.
At Martiniques the convoy left the Route Nationale and followed the loop road to the coast. It was one which carried little traffic in the early hours of morning. After Carry-le-Rouet they began to shed the escorts. First to leave were the Panhard scout cars. There were no farewells, no exchanges of signals as the armoured cars reduced speed and disappeared into the darkness. When they’d gone the transporter turned north-east and made for the Route Nationale. Once on it the four outriders dropped away and the transporter swung east, heading for Marseille. The rain had stopped but not the wind.
Not long afterwards a civilian motorcyclist with leather jacket and red helmet overtook at moderate speed. Once ahead he throttled back remaining a hundred metres or so in front. Before long he was joined by another. This time the helmet was yellow.
In the cab’s mirror Durand saw the lights of two motor cyclists following behind. The four leather-jacketed riders with their bright helmets, each of a different colour, kept no particular station, accelerating and breaking from time to time, their relative positions constantly changing. It could not have been apparent to passing traffic that these men were an armed escort of the CRS.
They were well into the built-up area on the western side of Marseille where rows of sodium street lamps shed orange light over wet streets and anonymous façades. The air was heavy with the fumes of traffic and industry and the pungent smell of city streets after rain.
The superintendent held the plan under the map-light, a fingernail marking the transporter’s position. ‘We’re coming up to Rue d’Anthoine,’ he said. The traffic lights turned red, the transporter’s hydraulic brakes hissed and it came to a halt. Beyond its bonnet the leading motorcyclists sat on their machines, stolid and motionless, the lights of the transporter exaggerating the bright colours of their helmets. Above the dull rumble of the Berliet’s diesel could be heard the throb and roar of motorcycle engines. Their riders, impatient to go, were revving the powerful engines in staccato bursts.
‘It’s green,’ said the superintendent.
Durand nodded but said nothing. Why should he? He, too, could see. He engaged gear, released the handbrake and clutch and depressed the accelerator. The engine note rose and the Berliet moved forward.
‘Turn right into the Rue d’Anthoine,’ said the superintendent.
The hauling unit turned in a wide circle, the towed body of the articulated vehicle tracking round behind it. It was seven minutes past four and Marseille was still asleep. There was little traffic, mostly farm trucks bringing in produce, and cars carrying night-shift workers home. Here and there an occasional cyclist struggled against the wind, or if it was behind him sat bolt upright making the most of it.
Towards the bottom of the Rue d’Anthoine they turned left into the Boulevard de Paris, soon afterwards right into the Boulevard Dunkerque to make towards the Gare Maritime.
‘Right at the next traffic light,’ said the superintendent. ‘That’ll take us down to the gates on the Quai Lazaret.’ They passed a stationary patrol car
The lieutenant opened a briefcase and with the aid of a torch took out some papers. ‘The shipping documents,’ he said, ‘and my identity permit.’
‘Got yours ready, Durand?’ asked the superintendent.
‘Yes. Below the instrument panel.’
‘Right,’ said the superintendent. ‘I’ll do the explaining. Leave it to me.’ He didn’t add that none would be necessary. The CRS had briefed senior port officials. The transporter would be passed through the dock gates without examination or delay subject to production of the shipping documents and port identity permits for its crew. The permits identified the three men as employees of François Berthon et Cie, haulage contractors of Chatillon-sous-Bagneux in the Department of the Seine. The faked permits had been prepared by the CRS for the men in the driving-cab. The six armed guards did not need them for they could not be seen. Officially they were not there.
The dock gates on the Quai Lazaret showed up in the distance.
‘Flash your lights,’ said the superintendent. ‘Slow down.’
Durand did so. The four motorcyclists accelerated quickly away, leaving the transporter behind.
Durand turned the Berliet sharp left and a gendarme waved them to stop under the arc-lights at the gate-house. A port official came from it and beckoned. The superintendent climbed down from the cab, shipping documents in hand. He greeted the man and together they went into the gate-house. Two more officials sat at desks.
‘The papers,’ said the superintendent, holding them forward. ‘And my permit.’
The port official shifted a Gauloise from one side of his mouth to the other, examined the permit, shot a quick glance of enquiry at the superintendent and passed it back. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Now the consignment notes and the export authority.’
The superintendent handed over the shipping documents. The port official stopped, holding them under the desk lamp, turning the pages with bureaucratic deliberation. ‘Agricultural machinery,’ he said, sucking at the Gaullois. ‘To be shipped in the Byblos.’ He consulted a berthing chart. ‘She’s lying in the Joliette Basin. Wharf Seven, Berth D. Here, see?’
The superintendent moved across to the berthing chart. ‘Yes,’ he said.‘I see.’
The official rubber-stamped and initialled the documents. ‘Right,’ he nodded. ‘She sails at daylight.’
The superintendent took the documents, went back to the transporter, climbed into the cab. ‘We can go,’ he said. ‘She’s in the Joliette Basin, Wharf Seven, Berth D. I’ll direct you.’
Durand grunted and the Berliet rolled forward. The superintendent lit a cigarette, sighing as he exuded clouds of blue smoke. ‘Did the gendarme check your permits?’
The lieutenant said, ‘Yes. There was no trouble.’
‘Good,’ said the superintendent. ‘I didn’t think there would be.’
The Berliet nosed down the roadway between the warehouses, past A Berth then on past B and C. In a hundred metres or so it swung left.
‘That’s her,’ said the superintendent. ‘Pull up alongside. Ahead of the crane.’
‘Small, isn’t she?’ said the lieutenant. An undistinguished coaster lay in D Berth, puffs of diesel exhaust coming from the grubby white, red-banded funnel. The name Byblos and the port of registration BEIRUT showed up on her stern. The scene was brightly lit by cargo clusters in the ship and arc-lights on the warehouse. There was no sign of life but for two men at the inboard end of the gangway.
Durand parked the Berliet ahead of the crane. A man in a peaked cap appeared on the deck of the coaster. ‘Move her back, opposite number two hold.’ He pointed to the hold immediately forward of the bridge superstructure. The crane came to life, its motor humming as it back-tracked along the rails, the jib turning in the direction of the coaster.
Durand backed the Berliet towards the crane, stopping when the man in the peaked cap shouted, ‘That’ll do.’
The superintendent and the lieutenant got out. Durand pulled a lever under the dashboard and the roof of the transporter rose slowly on side-hinges until it was fully opened. A motor in the crane whirred and the jib swung back until the cable and lifting hook plumbed the open transporter. The hook descended and the men in the transporter hitched it to the wire sling on the packing case. The crane driver pulled the lifting lever and the case came clear. The jib swung outwards towards the coaster and hovered over number two hold, the crane driver obeying the signals of the man in the peaked cap.
The men in the hold who received and stowed the grey packing case saw that it came from Duquesne Frères et Cie, manufacturers of agricultural machinery at Ouvry-sur-Maine, in the Department of the Seine. It was consigned to a well-known firm of distributors in Beirut, D. B. Mahroutti Bros, and it was the first of sixteen of various shapes and sizes to be transferred from the transporter to the ship.
While the off-loading was taking place the superintendent and the lieutenant went on board the Byblos. In the captain’s cabin they conferred earnestly with the men who’d been on the gangway when the transporter arrived. They were Syrians and both spoke excellent French. Much of the discussion was of a technical nature and in this the lieutenant took a prominent part. Documents signed, felicitations exchanged, the superintendent and lieutenant returned to the transporter where off-loading had now been completed.
The entire operation had taken less than an hour. It had been watched from beginning to end by a bearded young man concealed behind a lifeboat on the boatdeck of the Byblos. A livid scar ran from the base of his right ear down the neck into his collar. Much of the scar was concealed by the beard and long black hair. He was a member of the coaster’s crew. A new one, he’d signed on as galley-hand only two weeks before. That was the day the coaster had left Beirut for Marseille.
‘She sailed this morning at daybreak. Nayef’s message came at five o’clock. That is why I sent for you.’ Mahmoud el Ka’ed’s intense eyes searched the faces of the eleven men and a girl gathered round him in the cellar. They were sitting on wooden benches at a table which did service of sorts as a workman’s bench. The cellar, low-ceilinged and poorly lit, smelt of old drains and decay. From somewhere came the tic-tac of dripping water. In the corners there were broken chairs, an old chest, a pile of threadbare carpets, a stack of cartons and a heap of rubbish.
Unpromising though the place was it had the advantage of being a ‘safe house’. An anonymous building between the Boulevard Saeb Salaam and the Rue Bechara el Koury in the area of the Safa Mosque, it was far enough from the sprawling refugee camp to the south of Beirut to avoid sporadic air strikes by the Israelis and the close attention of their agents. It was one of several ‘safe houses’ they used for their meetings.
The voice which had spoken was low pitched, almost gentle – and misleading because it was not at all in keeping with the character of its owner. Tall, slim, hollow-cheeked with flowing moustache, it was his eyes, concealed now behind dark glasses, which revealed the man they called El Ka’ed – the leader. They were eyes which glittered with fierce energy.
‘Nayef’s message gave the dimensions. I have already passed them to Youssef. Zeid will let us have details of the markings as soon as he arrives.’
After his listeners’ predictable murmur of excitement, Ka’ed said, ‘The ship is coming direct. The agents say she will arrive in five days. That is on Friday morning.’
A pale, cadaverous man wearing horn-rimmed glasses said, ‘When is zero hour?’
‘Between two and four in the morning. The nearer to two the better. The moon will have set. The operation must be completed before daylight.’ He looked towards the end of the table. ‘What news have you, Assaf?’
Assaf Kamel had long hair, tired eyes. ‘Colonel Rashid Dahan will arrive on Friday morning with four Syrian officers,’ he said. ‘They are coming from Damascus by car, travelling in civilian clothes. On arrival they’ll disperse before going to the Syrian Embass
‘Good,’ said Ka’ed. ‘That is very good.’ He looked at Kamel with approval. This was a man for whom he had both admiration and affection. Kamel’s sleepy looks belied his character. He had served in the Syrian army for several years as an arms expert and had long experience of bomb-disposal work. Apart from these qualifications, invaluable to the Soukour-al-Sahra’, he had shown himself to be brave and steadfast.
There was a long silence, Ka’ed contemplating the serious intent faces. What were they thinking? What did they feel? They didn’t look alarmed or afraid. Least of all Jasmine, the girl. She had an immensely calm face but he knew she was hard, notwithstanding her good looks.
He spoke to Kamel again. ‘Let me see the photos, Assaf.’
Kamel handed them over. Ka’ed went through them slowly. He selected one, compared it carefully with the face of a young man on the far side of the table. ‘Ammar Tarik certainly has the Colonel’s features,’ he said.
The girl looked doubtful. ‘Ammar is younger and less handsome.’
The men laughed. Tarik shrugged his shoulders. ‘Ask Assaf. He has seen us both.’
Ka’ed leant forward, looking down the table. ‘So, Assaf. What do you say?’
‘Yes. Ammar is much younger, but the resemblance is strong. They are of the same build, though the Colonel is heavier. He has a big stomach.’
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