Idi Amin was already fairly notorious by 1971. As the commander in cheif of Uganda’s armed forces, he had recruited heavily amongst tribes not sympathetic to the Ugandan majority, and built himself a considerable power base. The Ugandan Prime Minister, Milton Obote – formerly an ally to Amin, but now worried about his subordinate’s increasingly obvious ambitions – reclaimed that post in October 1970, reducing Amin in rank to commander in cheif of the army.
In January 1971, Amin struck back. In a lightning military coup, he seized power on January 25. Publically, Amin announced that he was a soldier, not a politician. He promised that his military government would be only a caretaker regime until new elections could be held, and to release all political prisoners. On February 2, he proclaimed himself President of Uganda, a post which he held until he too was deposed, in 1979, after years of corruption, ethnic cleansing and economic mismanagement.
Thomas Patrick Melady was not, in the general run of things, a man given to hyperbole. He was one of the longest serving diplomats working for the United States, and a respected authority on African and European affairs after his retirement from active service. Among his greatest accomplishments was influencing the Vatican (during his term as Ambassador to the Holy See, from 1989 – 1993) to recognise the nation of Israel. He was a serious man, is what I’m saying.
His first ambassadorial role was as US Ambassador to Burundi from 1969 – 1972. He then had the misfortune to become the new Ambassador to Uganda in 1972, a post he left the followiung year. In this role, he watched the early days of Idi Amin’s rule with mounting horror, describing the man in a telegram he sent to Washington on January 2, 1973, as “racist, erratic and unpredictable, brutal, inept, bellicose, irrational, ridiculous, and militaristic”. The United States closed its embassy in Uganda 38 days later, and did not reopen it until 1979.
Air France Flight 139 was carrying 246 passengers and 12 crew on a routine flight from Athens to Paris when it was hijacked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the German Revolutionary Cells. They took the flight to Benghazi in Libya, where it refueled (and a single hostage was released) and then on to Entebbe Airport in Uganda the following day – where Idi Amin’s regime was only too happy to give them aid and support. The hostages were moved from the plane to the airport terminal, and in the following week, more than half the remaining hostages were released, leaving 106, most of them Israelis (and a majority of the crew, who would not abandon their responsibility to the hostages).
As diplomatic talks stalled, and Amin permitted additional terrorists to join the hijackers, the Israeli government decided to take decisive action. On July 4, Israeli forces raided the terminal, freeing the majority of the remaining hostages. Four hostages died (including one who had been released and was then in a Ugandan hospital), and one of the Israeli soldiers was also slain. Seven of the eight hijackers and 45 Ugandan soldiers were also killed. The crew members of the Air France flight, who had remained at their posts throughout it all, were decorated as heroes in France.