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Thursday May 7, 2009
By BEH YUEN HUI
FOR Tan Sri Osman Samsuddin Cassim, putting his life in the hands of terrorists in exchange for the freedom of over 50 people was not a heroic act.
Instead, he felt it was his responsibility as the secretary-general to the Home Affairs Ministry during Malaysia’s first terrorist attack in 1975.
On Aug 4 that year, five Japanese Red Army (JRA) members stormed into the American International Assurance (AIA) building in Kuala Lumpur and took 53 hostages to trade for five comrades being held in Japanese jails.
Osman turned himself in to the kidnappers under one condition – the release of the 53 civilians and foreign diplomats including then Swedish Charge d’Affaires Fredrik Bergenstrahle and his secretary Ulla Odqvist.
Recently, the King of Sweden Carl XVI Gustaf awarded him the Royal Order of the Polar Star in honour of his feat.
Osman, 79, was more than surprised to be presented with the award, a recognition that came 34 years late.
He has mixed feelings about it and is happy to have been conferred the award but, on the other hand, it was from a foreign country and not his own.
“Although I never thought I would get anything, I am still very happy and thank the Swedish for granting me such a high honour,’’ he said.
During the hostage crisis, Osman was part of the negotiating team stationed at the AIA building that housed the American, Japanese and Swedish embassies.
“The JRA members threatened to kill the hostages if their demands were not met.
“Finally, the Japanese government compromised and sent the five prisoners on a Japanese Airlines plane to Malaysia.
“After a reunion with the JRA members in Malaysia, the same plane would fly all of them to Libya, which had agreed to accept the group,’’ he said.
Just as everything had been set, the guerrillas raised another request – they wanted to take the hostages along to guarantee their safe getaway.
The Malaysia and Japanese government then reached a compromise with the JRA group and two officials from each country would take the place of the hostages.
From the Malaysian side, Osman and the late Datuk Ramli Omar, the then parliamentary secretary to the Communications Ministry were chosen.
“I felt like I had been given the death sentence when I knew I would be one of the hostages on the third day of the crisis.
“But it was my responsibility as a civil servant,’’ said Osman.
He said his mind was blank but he managed to return home and packed some clothing in a rush.
“I told my wife about it but, surprisingly, she was very calm. Probably, she did not realise the danger,’’ he laughed.
While returning to the AIA building, Osman realised that he had worn the wrong set of coat and trousers.
On the fourth evening, he boarded the plane with the rebel group and the three officials at Subang Airport (now the Sultan Abdul Aziz Airport).
“We sat in the first class cabin while the group used the ecomony class. We were separated by a curtain.
“They did not talk to us or disturb us. It was a peaceful journey,’’ he said, adding that he read the book The Day of The Jackal to stay relaxed.
The plane stopped over in Sri Lanka for refuelling and landed at Tripoli, Libya, in the evening on Aug 8.
“While leaving the plane, one of the JRA members walked past me and shook my hand,’’ he said.
Osman said he was only relieved when he arrived home and received a hero’s welcome from thousands of Malaysians on Aug 10.
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