After one of the most successful "disposal" operations of its kind, in which none of the 199 passengers on the Sudanese airliner was hurt, it emerged that the hijackers were desperate asylum seekers who faced a fate of certain torture and execution if they returned to Iraq.
But ministers faced fierce divisions over how they should be dealt with. If they offered asylum to the hijackers, a precedent may be set for desperate refugees everywhere, and some Conservative MPs urged that no quarter should be given.
Others were holding out hope of mercy for the men and their families, under the auspices of the old French proverb: "My enemy's enemy is my friend." One Government source said that, given Britain's antipathy to Saddam Hussein, it was unthinkable that they should be handed over to his "killing machine".
The 20-hour drama ended peacefully shortly after 1pm yesterday when the hijackers gave themselves up after being assured by police that a representative from the Iraqi Community Association, who has a record for helping fellow exiles, was present in the control tower. They were then taken to Harlow police station. Two children were taken into local- authority care.
A spokesman said police had discovered knives and imitation explosives on the aircraft.
As the drama was brought to a close yesterday reports came from Khartoum, where the hijack began, that the men had diplomatic status. In conversations between police negotiators and the Sudan Airways Airbus, pilot Abdul Hamid Hidiribi was anxious to reassure the British authorities that they were not dealing with terrorists.
He said: "They are not fundamentalists. They are not political or they do not belong to any political party or terrorist group.
"They are ordinary people, they have been persecuted by the Saddam regime. They need protection for their families."
Emma Nicholson, the Liberal Democrat MP, and an expert on Iraqi repression, said last night: "I believe that they should be tried in the normal court of law, for a terrorist action on British soil. If their story is ... that these are people who are frightened out of their wits for their lives and their families' lives, then I hope tolerance will be shown."
The Aviation Security Act allows for punishment of life imprisonment for hijacking offences. But, under the Home Secretary's prerogative for mercy, it is possible the seven men might then be free to apply for asylum and even be granted, with their families, exceptional leave to remain in Britain.
The last hijacking drama at Stansted, in 1982, took place when an Air Tanzania aircraft was held by terrorists, and the pilot was shot and wounded. Yassin Membar, one of the hijackers involved, told ITN last night that they were assured by negotiators that they would face trial, but they would not be returned to Tanzania. Membar served three years in prison, and remained in this country.
However, David Howell, Tory chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, said: "Hijacking is a horrendous and sometimes murderous crime. If the word gets round that the quick way to asylum is three years in jail and then you're out, and in the country where you wanted to get to, that would be absolutely disastrous to the whole policy towards asylum seekers."
The most outspoken call for a hard line to be taken over the hijackers came from Terry Dicks, the Tory backbencher, who said that to consider "these people's applications" was a "typical soft, limpish, wimpish way of behaving". The Home Office insisted last night that any application for asylum would be treated as any other, although the fact they arrived by means of a criminal act would be taken into consideration.
Hours of terror, page 2
THE HOURS OF TENSION ON BOARD FLIGHT 150
5pm: Sudan Airways Flight 150 takes off from Khartoum
5.20pm: Iraqi hijackers take control of the Airbus 310
8.15pm: Flight 150 lands at Larnaca airport, Cyprus
11.40pm: Aircraft leaves Larnaca for flight to London
4.30am: Airbus lands at Stansted Airport, Essex
6.24am: First batch of 10 hostages released
1.07pm: Flight crew begin leaving the aircraft
1.20pm: Capt Hidiribi kisses the tarmac as he steps off AirbusReuse content