Sat, 01 Apr 2000

Red Army rebels adrift 30 years on

By Shigemi Sato

TOKYO (AFP): Thirty years after hijacking a plane to North Korea in its first foray overseas, Japan's Red Army far-left group looks a spent force in a vastly changed world.

When nine Red Army militants, wielding samurai swords, forced a Japan Airlines domestic flight to head for Pyongyang on March 31, 1970, the United States was locked in struggle in Vietnam as the Cold War raged.

It was a ripe time for extremists opposed to the United States and its allies, as the Red Army bloodily proved in an infamous massacre at Tel Aviv airport in 1972.

Now, the United States is pressing a reluctant North Korea to stop sheltering the five remaining hijackers as the two countries seek to improve relations.

In the Middle East, the Red Army's chapter there dwindled further this month when Lebanon deported four members after they completed three-year prison terms for forging documents and illegal residency.

Kozo Okamoto, 51, served time with the four but was granted asylum "because of the suffering he endured in Israeli prisons."

In 1972, Okamoto and two other Red Army commandoes sprayed Israel's Lod airport with gunfire, killing 24 people and wounding 76 others. Their attack earned the Red Army a place of honour in the Palestinian guerrilla movement.

Okamoto, hailed as a hero by some Palestinians, was sentenced to life in prison in Israel for the airport massacre but left the country in 1985 in exchange for an Israeli army official held hostage in Lebanon.

"The world was in turmoil as a whole 30 years ago and what the Red Army faction called the 'world simultaneous revolution' had a reality," said Tsukuba University assistant professor Hideki Chimoto, an expert on protest movements.

"But the US-led Middle East peace process is a major factor which has prevented them from returning to the old ways," said Chimoto.

The end of the Cold War and the shift towards peace in the Middle East in the past decade have removed two key planks underlaying the Red Army's existence.

The group, which also made headlines with hijackings and attacks on embassies, has not been linked to violence since 1988 when it was blamed for a car bomb attack which killed five people at a US military club in Naples.

With guerrilla membership in the Middle East chapter peaking at an estimated 40, it has apparently tried to spread out from its traditional base in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley since 1993. Four of its members have been arrested in the Philippines, Romania, Peru and Nepal.

Japanese police have placed on the international wanted list seven Red Army members, including 54-year-old female leader Fusako Shigenobu.

Through its supporters in Japan, the Red Army has in recent years wooed activists at home whose main concern is to protect the country's pacifist constitution or the environment.

"I don't believe they will resort to guerrilla tactics as before if they ever think of doing something in Japan," Chimoto said. "The times have changed and they might be aware now that they must change society from deep down."

But a Japanese intelligence official refused to rule out further violence from the faction, including possible action against a summit of the Group of Eight powers on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa in late July.

"For now, they may possibly try to lay the ground through mass and political movements rather than military action," the official said.

"But they have not renounced military action. Basically we think they will strike if they find themselves in a position to do so."

He recalled a previous attempt by the Red Army to disrupt an annual big-power summit. In 1987, militants launched rockets into the British and US embassies in Rome during a summit in Venice.

Founded in 1969 with an estimated 400 members at the height of campus strife which had swept Europe a year before, the Red Army was all but destroyed when 53 members were arrested in a military sweep.

The remaining members began advocating the establishment of "international bases," leading to the 1970 hijack and Fusako Shigenobu's move to Lebanon in 1971.

At home, the faction merged with an extremely militant group and ceased to exist in 1972 when it lost a gun battle with police after guerrilla training. In the process, 14 members were killed in an internal purge.

These days the Red Army says it has learned from its past while still upholding its beliefs.

"We sincerely reflect upon the hijack tactics which used passengers as a shield," said Takaya Shiomi, 58, head of the Red Army faction before serving 20 years in prison for his role in various guerrilla activities.

"But we are upholding the political significance of the 1970s struggle for independence and peace," Shiomi said in a statement marking the 30th anniversary.