On this day: The Osirak Nuclear Reactor strike

June 7 1981: Codename, Operation Opera

By Jennifer Lipman, June 7, 2011

It was late on Sunday afternoon when 16 Israeli fighter jets swept into Iraq to make a covert strike on a nuclear facility 18 miles outside of Baghdad.

The Osirak reactor, which was being constructed by French workers, was destroyed in the hit and the Israeli planes flew home unharmed. It came after diplomatic efforts to prevail on France to stop supporting the project failed.

It was the first time a nuclear plant had been targeted in an air strike but although the reactor was in an advanced stage and expected to be ready by July, it was not yet stocked with nuclear fuel so there was no danger of a leak.

The strike, conducted by a team which included the future Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, was ordered by Prime Minister Menachem Begin because the reactor was viewed as "a mortal danger to the people of Israel".

In a statement the Israeli government said the reason for the mission was clear. "The atomic bombs which that reactor was capable of producing…would be of the Hiroshima size," they said.

"We again call upon them to desist from this horrifying, inhuman deed. Under no circumstances will we allow an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against our people."

When news of what happened emerged some 24 hours later, it was roundly condemned by countries including France and the United States. A decade later, in the wake of the Gulf War, then US Defence Secretary Dick Cheney thanked Israel for the "bold action".

What the JC said: High in the sky above Tel Aviv, two F-15s were "buzzing off" in a victory roll, after finishing the mission and before landing back at their base. They accelerated, breaking the speed barrier. Two supersonic booms broke glasses in many homes. Nobody down below knew what had happened, but for the pilots it was a personal way of telling the worried Israeli citizens that they no longer had to worry about the Iraqi reactor. The nightmare was over.

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Last updated: 9:30am, June 7 2011