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They were driven through a tunnel under the village to a strip of lawn 275 yards away that had been converted into an emergency helicopter pad. Two choppers took the Arabs and their hostages on a 25-minute ride to Fürstenfeldbruck airport; a third preceded them, carrying German officials and Israeli intelligence men.
The airport had been ringed by 500 soldiers. Sharpshooters were staked out, but, strangely and disastrously, there were only five of them to pick off eight Arabs; the rest had been left at Olympic Village in case the Arabs presented targets of opportunity there.
When the helicopters set down at Fürstenfeldbruck, two Arabs hopped out and walked over to check out the 727. Two more jumped out and, although they had promised not to use Germans as hostages, ordered the helicopter crews to get out and stand by their choppers. The sharpshooters three of them posted in the control tower 40 yards from the helicopters and the other two on the fieldhad been instructed to fire whenever the Arabs presented the greatest number of targets. The cautious terrorists never exposed more than four of their number at a time. To complicate matters, the local police sharpshooters had turned down infra-red sniperscopes offered by the West German army because they had never been trained to use them. They sighted through regular scopes at a field illuminated by floodlights and stippled by shadows. Nonetheless, one marksman squeezed off a round and the others quickly followed suit.
The two Arabs guarding the helicopter crews were hit, and in the firefight that followed one of the pilots was wounded. A third guerrilla on the tarmac was killed. But the Arab leader, whom the police wanted to hit most of all, dived under a helicopter and fired back. His shots somehow knocked out the lights as well as the radio in the control tower. Ricocheting bullets also killed a Munich police sergeant who had crouched beside the control tower.
The battle continued sporadically for another hour before five guerrillas, including the leader, were killed and three surrendered. In that interval the hostages died too. One group of four burned to death when a terrorist tossed a grenade and set fire to the helicopter in which they were being held. The rest were machine-gunned by the Arabs.
Rumors spread, however, that the Arabs had been captured and the Israelis had been freed alive. Strangely, the government accepted the rumors without checking them and gave out the good news (see THE PRESS). The world prematurely rejoiced. Even Willy Brandt went to bed shortly afterward convinced that his men had scored a triumph. In Jerusalem, Israelis celebrated and Mrs. Meir opened a bottle of cognac, ready to propose a toast.
Four hours later, West German authorities finally admitted the truth. Police Chief Schreiber tried to minimize the lag by insisting that "the hostages were as good as dead from the minute the Israeli government refused to hand over prisoners. We only tried to free some of the hostages or possibly all of them, in the event that the terrorists made a mistake."