Flying across central Lebanon and striking deep into the Bekaa valley, helicopter-borne commandos abducted Mustafa Dirani from under the noses of the Hizbollah militants and Syrian forces which control much of the area.
'They broke into the house after breaking down the door with an axe,' Dirani's eldest son, 11-year-old Ali, told Reuters news agency. 'I was awakened by a soldier pointing a pistol to my head and asking me something about weapons.
'Calling us by our first names, they brought my father, mother and uncle and handcuffed them.
'They then searched the house, took papers and other stuff and carried my father out,' he said. 'The whole thing took seven minutes.'
Security sources said the the commandos, aboard two helicopter gunships, had landed about five miles west of Kasernaba in the eastern Bekaa Valley at midnight.
About 20 soldiers in two small military trucks stopped 500 yards from the village, where they were met by someone believed to be a local agent.
Under cover of darkness, they proceeded on foot, and at 3am encircled Dirani's house on the edge of the village, stormed into it and whisked him away, handcuffed and in his pyjamas.
The purpose of the abduction was to obtain information about the whereabouts of Ron Arad, the Israeli air force navigator who has been missing for eight years, and who is believed to be a hostage of pro-Iranian militants.
Dirani, leader of the 'Believers' Resistance', a Shia Muslim faction, is believed by the Israelis to have captured Arad after he was shot down over southern Lebanon in October 1986. According to Israeli army radio yesterday, citing intelligence reports, Dirani later sold Arad to the Iran-based Revolutionary Guards.
Last night Dirani was being interrogated at a secret location inside Israel.
The Israelis clearly intend to use him as a bargaining tool in any hostage deal, despite the failure of previous efforts to tempt the pro-Iranian factions into an exchange.
Yesterday's raid was a high-risk operation that could spark a new wave of kidnappings and hostage-taking in the Middle East. After a similar raid in 1989, when Israel seized Sheikh Abdul Karim Obeid, a pro-Iranian cleric, from his home in southern Lebanon, Iranian hostage-takers killed the American hostage, Colonel William Higgins, in retaliation. Sheikh Obeid was also taken in an attempt to win information about missing servicemen. He is still in an Israeli jail.
After Israeli helicopter gunships rocketed a motor convoy in 1989, killing Sheikh Abbas Musawi, the Hizbollah leader, Hizbollah gunmen fired hundreds of rockets into northern Israel, and Islamic Jihad, the pro-Iranian extremist faction, claimed responsibility for blowing up the Israeli embassy in Argentina, killing dozens.
However, Israeli leaders and security chiefs yesterday treated the raid as a big coup against Syria, and as a warning to the kidnappers that Israel will use all possible means to secure the release of Arad.
'We have proved that the kidnappers cannot be protected wherever they are. No place is protected against the long arm of Israel,' said Brigadier General Ephraim Sne.
Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, said the Israeli army 'should be praised for the precise operation, which removed a very dangerous man from a place where many operations initiated'.
In Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley, Hussein Musawi, a pro-
Iranian faction leader, said the raid was '. . . part of the open battle between us and the Israeli enemy . . . It will affect us only by increasing our determination and stepping up our fight.'
Musawi said the Israelis might be planning to use Dirani as a 'pressure card' in the case of Arad, but that this would not work. 'We do not understand this language - they will not gain anything,' he said.
The operation was ordered by the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and approved in a special session of his cabinet on Thursday, according to Israeli army radio.
The abduction appears to have been timed partly to boost Israeli public confidence in the security forces, just as doubts and fears have begun to spread again over the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
On Friday, two Israeli soldiers were shot dead and two settlers were wounded by Islamic militants in the Gaza Strip, where Palestinian police have taken partial control from Israeli forces in recent days. The raid also follows the latest round of largely unproductive talks between Syria and Warren Christopher, US Secretary of State, aimed at finding a peace solution for the Golan Heights.
Meanwhile the question of Arad's current whereabouts, or even whether he is still alive, remains unanswered.
Arad's F14 fighter-bomber was shot down over southern Lebanon by Palestinian anti- aircraft fire during an Israeli bombing raid on the Palestinian camp of Ein Helweh, which was besieged at the time by the pro-Syrian Amal militia.
Arad, who had managed to eject from the plane, is thought to have fallen into the hands of the Amal militia.
In August 1991, Amal chief Nabih Berry, who is now the Speaker of the Lebanese parliament, claimed that Arad had been 'sold to the Iranians for half a million dollars' by Dirani.
Dirani had been head of security in the Amal militia until 1988, when he decided to quit the secular group and join the Iranian-backed Hizbollah.
No one has ever claimed responsibility for Arad's capture, and there is no proof that the missing airman is still alive.
In 1993, several Arab and Lebanese officials fuelled the mystery about the airman's fate by making contradictory statements about where Arad was being held. But all agreed that he was still alive. In December, Egypt's ambassador to Israel, Mohammad Bassiuni, said that Arad was being held captive in Lebanon.
The airman's release is the key to any future global prisoner exchanges between Israel and the Shia Muslim Hizbollah and Amal militia.
(Photograph and map omitted)