Hostages tell of 'brutal' hijack

Airliner ordeal: 'Peaceful' asylum-seekers portrayed as terrorists armed with bombs and knives
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Passengers held hostage on board the hijacked Sudan Airways flight into Britain told yesterday of their ordeal at the hands of "terrorists" armed with knives, bombs and broken bottles.

Contrary to earlier descriptions of the kidnappers as frightened family men fleeing the clutches of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the hostages said they behaved brutally and threatened to blow up the aircraft when one of them was overpowered.

Security and government sources last night rejected suggestions that the seven men were related to Saddam or were part of his "inner circle".

Although this leaves open the possibility that they are political opponents, their identities remain a mystery and Iraqi dissidents in Britain yesterday cast doubts on this theory.

A security source said: "At this stage there is nothing to show they are members of any organisation."

The only hostage officially allowed to speak officially said last night that Britain would be wrong to grant political asylum. Elageed A-Saied, 43, a Sudan Airways marketing director,said: "They would not be good people for Britain to grant asylum to. They have hijacked a civilian plane, with civilian passengers and sick passengers and children.

"It really is something very, very bad and they should be severely punished."

Ahmed Abubasher, 42, another of the 199 passengers and crew aboard Sudan Airways flight 150 from Khartoum to Amman, said: "At first, it was like a football riot.

"People were hitting each other and fighting with the terrorists. For half an hour we were absolutely terrified until the plane refuelled in Cyprus.

"They had knives and we thought they wanted to kill people on board. A security man hit one of the captors in the face. One of the others [hijackers] had a knife and he stabbed him.

"There was shouting and screaming. There were women and children there. They were crying and very frightened.

"They took two air stewards hostage and threatened them with knives."

Ahmed Ali, a Sudanese national, said he saw the hijackers produce two "bombs", since described by police as fakes.

Other witnesses described the "bombs" as hand grenades.

Mohammed Sadiq, 35, another of the passengers, said one of the hijackers made an explicit threat to blow up the aircraft. "It was very terrible," he said. "The hijackers were shouting and one of the passengers succeeded in capturing one of them, but another came from the back of the plane and said that he was carrying a bomb.

"He said: 'I am going to explode it, so release my friend'."

An Arab journalist, Ahmed Gurashi, said some passengers told him that the hijackers' wives had knives hidden the backs of their dresses.

The hostages' comments, extracted despite heavy police pressure for them not to speak to the media, are likely to make the Government's dilemma, over whether to grant them political asylum even more acute. Home Office sources, however, emphasised that the kidnappers would face criminal charges before any question of asylum was considered.

The seven hijackers were questioned by detectives at Harlow police station in Essex.

But police still refused to name them or the six women and two children held under the Immigration Act.

The news blackout suggests that MI5 and MI6 have advised ministers that it is in the national interest to keep Saddam Hussein guessing.

And leave the public with a mystery that could take some time to untangle.