TEL AVIV, Israel, May 21 -- Israeli commandos achieved 'total surprise' in their pre-dawn abduction of Lebanese guerrilla leader Mustafa Dirani, breaking into his bedroom and pinning him down before he could even reach for the loaded gun by his pillow, military commanders said Saturday.
They said they expected that under interrogation, Dirani, head of the 'Faithful Amal Movement,' would shed light on the whereabouts of Air Force navigator Ron Arad, captured eight years ago after his plane was downed on a bombing mission in southern Lebanon.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called the airborne commando raid a feat that 'the state of Israel and all lovers of freedom in the war on terrorism could be proud of.'
He said the surgical mission in the heart of southern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley had been planned for several months and was carried out after efforts by the United States and other foreign countries failed to free Arad, now believed to be either in Iranian or Syrian hands.
'I can promise that operations of this type will be undertaken again in the future if there is a need and if there is a chance to carrying them out successfully, because we bear responsibilty for all missing soldiers and prisoners whose fates have yet to be determined,' Rabin said at a Tel Aviv news conference broadcast live on national television Saturday night.
Arad is one of six Israelis listed as missing in action from operations in Lebanon and is given the best chance among the group of still being alive.
Dirani, 46, was kidnapped in the early morning hours by a team of commandos that swooped in on two helicopters from the Mediterranean coast and landed in the hills overlooking the villages of Fourzol and Kasar Nabba, 14 miles (22 km) west of the ancient city of Baalbeck.
The Israeli soldiers reached Dirani's two-story house in Kassar Nabba at 2:45 a.m., eluding the large Syrian military presence in the area. They stormed the house on the second floor while Dirani, his wife and brother were sleeping.
'We achieved total surprise,' said Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, the chief of staff. 'We found numerous weapons including a loaded pistol just near the pillow of Mustafa Dirani, which he had not been able to operate.'
The Israelis also took from the apartment a pile of documents they say theybelieve are relevant to Arad and the inner workings of Islamic fundamentalist groups battling Israel's military control of a 9-mile (15 km) 'security zone' north of its border with Lebanon.
'We had reason to assess that Mustafa Dirani knows what happened to Ron Arad, and it was worth taking a chance to take him and to try to clarify and find out who is now responsible for the whereabouts of Ron Arad,' Barak said during a news conference.
He said one soldier was lightly wounded in a gunfight with Dirani's relatives.
Maj. Gen. Uri Saguy, chief of Army intelligence, said Dirani captured Arad in 1986 when he was security chief for the Shiite Amal Movement and held him until 1989. Dirani later split from the group and formed his own movement, the Faithful Amal.
Barak said he expected the interrogation 'would take a long time.'
The abduction of Dirani was similar to another commando operation in July 1989, when Israel seized Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, a senior official of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah.
At the time, Israel hoped Arad's captors would exchange him for Obeid, but the offer was not accepted and the sheikh remains in prison. Rabin said Israel was 'under no illusions' it could trade Dirani for Arad either.
(edited by Jonathan Ferziger in Jerusalem)