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POW Killer Threatens to Expose Others If Punished For Wartime Massacre

August 17, 1995 GMT

JERUSALEM (AP) _ The retired general who sparked an uproar by admitting he executed Egyptian POWs in 1956 said he wasn’t alone in making the decision, and threatened to name names ``if they try to throw me to the wolves.″

``I don’t think I’m a war criminal,″ Arye Biro, an Auschwitz survivor, told reporters Wednesday.

Biro said he was ``not proud″ of killing about 49 Egyptian POWs during the 1956 war, and has ``ached″ over the act, ``but under the same circumstances I think I would do (it) again.″

The portly 69-year-old, one of the few men to have participated in every one of Israel’s wars, said he was protecting others who shared the decision on the POW killings and threatened to expose them if made a scapegoat.

The scandal that began with Biro’s revelations two weeks ago snowballed Wednesday, with Israeli historians saying Biro’s actions were far from unique.

The allegations shocked many Israelis and strained relations with Egypt, which is demanding an investigation.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin issued a statement Wednesday maintaining that ``the Israeli Defense Forces earned their glory as a humane army whose soldiers are blessed with special moral values.″

But war veteran and author Michael Bar-Zohar said prisoner killings occurred ``in all of Israel’s wars″ and ``were treated forgivingly″ and hushed up by leaders.

Aryeh Yitzhaki, a military historian, told The Associated Press that Israeli troops carried out several massacres in the 1967 war, when Rabin was army chief, in which about 1,000 Egyptian prisoners were killed.

Biro’s actions occurred in October 1956, after his parachute battalion was dropped near the Mitla Pass behind Egyptian lines. They captured several dozen Egyptians and then received orders to head south.

Biro, then a captain, maintains they could not have freed the Egyptians for fear they would reveal the Israelis’ position. He said they lacked transportation to take them along.

``We were hundreds of kilometers behind enemy lines,″ he recalled. ``Egyptian planes were flying over us unhindered. Egyptian troops were pouring into the area, and the prisoners were shouting, `Just you wait, the Egyptian army will slaughter you.‴

Biro recounted dispassionately how he and a lieutenant took the prisoners aside, ordered them to lie face down, and opened fire on them with submachineguns.

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``They didn’t cry out. They were in shock,″ he said. ``It was all over in a couple of minutes.″

Ariel Sharon, the brigade commander, did not arrive at the Mitla until the following day, and Biro says the decision was taken on the spot.

Battalion commander Rafael Eitan, who later became army chief and is today a right-wing leader and declared candidate for prime minister, was the only other commanding officer present.

Asked if Eitan gave the order, Biro replied: ``Ask him.″

``If they try to throw me to the wolves, I’ll speak out,″ Biro added.

Israeli military historian Meir Pail said that after the 1956 war, then-Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan convened battalion commanders and brought up the POW killings carried out by Eitan’s men.

``Dayan reprimanded Eitan, not Biro, for killing prisoners all the way from Ras Sudar until Sharm al-Sheik,″ said Pail, who said he attended the meeting.

Biro’s speech is slurred as a result of a wartime injury, and two bullet wounds in his left leg were visible as he sat in a Dead Sea hotel room dressed in shorts.

He also has lung problems which he attributes to his days at the Auschwitz death camp, where he was sent by the Nazis at 16.

When the Soviets freed the death camp in 1945, Biro joined the Red Army. ``I killed German soldiers out of revenge,″ he said, providing no other details.

He immigrated to Palestine soon thereafter and fought in Israel’s army in the wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, also participating in the 1982 Lebanon invasion.