Wide Angle

22 October 1956 : Ben Bella, King Mohammed V and the story of the re-routed plane

On the 22nd of October 1956, a plane carrying FLN leaders, including Algeria’s future president Ahmed Ben Bella, was re-routed by the French authorities. The trip was plotted by King Mohammed V.

The first Algerian president Ahmed Ben Bella./Ph. DR
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After Morocco broke free from France on March the 2nd, 1956, King Mohammed V was determined to help Algeria gain its independence. The Sovereign supported the National Liberation Front (FLN) which fought the Algerian war against the French.

On the 21st of October, 1956, King Mohammed V received in Rabat the leaders of FLN who were planning to attend a conference in Tunis without attracting the attention of the French authorities deployed in Algeria.

Providing help for Algerians was «a sacred duty» for Morocco, wrote historian Mounya Essemlali in an article published by the «Relations Internationales» (Presses Universitaires de France) journal and entitled «Maroc Entre la France et L’Algérie (1956-1962)».

Meeting King Mohammed V

Ahmed Ben Bella, Mohamed Khider, Houcine Aït Ahmed, Mohammed Boudiaf and Mostafa Lacheraf who entered Morocco through Madrid, were all invited to held talks with the sultan, who promised to secure their trip to Tunis.

In fact, the FLN leaders were planning to reach Tunis, where they were supposed to meet Habib Bourguiba, who served as the second Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Tunisia before proclaiming the Tunisian Republic in 1957 and thus becoming the first President of Tunisia.

King Mohammed V proposed to provide a plane that would transport the FLN leaders to Tunis through Palma, a resort city and capital of the Spanish island of Mallorca (Majorca), in the western Mediterranean.

However, once in the royal palace, the French authorities issued a communiqué denouncing the meeting that brought the FLN leaders and Mohammed V together. In its statement, France announced that it is suspending financial aids granted to Morocco.

Re-routing the plane

But regardless of France’s angry reaction, the five FNL members flew to Palma on, October the 22nd, using fake IDs. The plane carrying them took off at around noon and arrived in the Spanish city at 5 pm.

But once in Palma, «the plane belonging to the Compagnie Chérifienne des Transports Ailes, a Moroccan company owned by the State, was thus re-routed by the French authorities over the Mediterranean and landed in Algiers where Ben Bella and his companions were arrested», recalled the historian.

The operation was performed, according to the same source, by the French Special military services which managed to locate the air plane carrying Ben Bella and his comrades.

Accusations and the Meknes riots

Mohammed V, who was attending the conference in Tunis, was told by Bourguiba once in Tunisia that the five FLN leaders were arrested and that their plane was re-routed by the French. «He was devastated, and scared for his own life», wrote Maurice Buttin in his book «Ben Barka, Hassan II, De Gaulle: ce que je sais d'eux» (KARTHALA, 2010), describing King Mohammed V.

In his book, Buttin has even referred to accusations that were directed at General Mohammad Oufkir, who was suspected of having informed the French about the trip of Ben Bella and his comrades.

Accusations were also directed at King Hassan II who was a Crown Prince at the time and was close to Oufkir.

Reacting to the re-routing of the Ben Bella plane, King Mohammed V denounced the attack, stating that he was «profoundly hurt and saddened by what happened», reported Camille Sari and Abderrahmane Mebtoul in their book «Quelle gouvernance et quelles institutions au Maghreb face aux enjeux géostratégiques?» (L'Harmattan, 2015).

In Morocco, the arrest of Ben Bella and his friends led to a series of protests. Several Moroccan and Algerian nationals took their anger to the streets on October the 23rd, denouncing the arrest of Ben Bella. In Meknes, the protests took a violent turn and several French expatriates were killed and injured in the riots.

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