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Jet hijackers die as 170 are freed

Commandos storm Airbus in Marseilles and rescue hostages after cockpit gunbattle
Paramilitary gendarmes stormed an Air France Airbus at Marseilles airport last night to free 170 passengers and crew held hostage for two days by Algerian Islamic fundamentalists.

The Interior Ministry in Paris said the four hijackers were killed and 25 people injured, nine of them police officers. The Airbus captain was reported to be among three crew hurt during a four-minute gun battle between commandos and hijackers in the aircraft's cockpit.

The members of the Groupe d'Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN) - a commando unit specialising in freeing hostages - stormed the Airbus A300 at 5.20pm, 54 hours after the hijackers took control of the aircraft as it was about to take off fromAlgiers for Paris on Christmas Eve.

In Algiers, the gunmen shot dead two passengers, an Algerian and a Vietnamese, soon after boarding the aircraft on Saturday. On Sunday evening, after the Algiers airport authorities ignored orders to remove the aircraft steps so it could be readied for departure, they shot Yannick Beugnet, a cook at the French embassy in Algiers.

Then, early yesterday morning, the Algerian government, which had previously refused to contemplate the aircraft's departure, gave permission for it to leave Algiers for Marseilles. It arrived at 3.30am local time with 160 passengers and 12 crew on board. There, the hijackers demanded enough fuel to take the aircraft to Paris. In mid-afternoon, the hijackers freed two passengers, adding to the 63, mainly women and children, let off in Algiers.

Shortly afterwards, the aircraft taxied slowly towards the main terminal buildings. Police ordered all members of the public including journalists from the buildings. A fleet of 50 ambulances began to arrive indicating that the end was close.

As darkness fell at 5.10pm, shots were reported from the aircraft. Apparently in response, the gendarmes - blowing off two of the aircraft's doors with explosives - stormed the Airbus 10 minutes later. As explosions echoed across the airport, clouds of smoke billowed out from under the aircraft.

Some passengers ran down the steps while others slid down escape chutes. Within 10 minutes, about 60 people from the aircraft were safely inside the airport buildings. The shooting continued for 20 minutes after the assault, although the police said the operation lasted no more than seven minutes.

Although the Algerian authorities had said the hijackers, reported by passengers to be aged between 20 and 25, were members of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) - the most violent of the fundamentalist groups fighting the Algerian government - passengers said that they had described themselves as members of Algeria's banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). Initially, they had demanded the release of two FIS leaders, Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, from house arrest. But when the Christmas morning deadline for their release passed, the gunmen asked simply to be flown out of Algeria. Passengers freed in Algiers said the hijackers wanted to be flown to Iran or Sudan. But the French authorities, perceptibly irritated by the Algerian government's hand ling of the affair, wanted the aircraft on French soil.

Speaking after French commandos stormed the aircraft, the French Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, said: "I want to insist that France will inexorably fight terrorism and will not give in to blackmail wherever it comes from." He added, however: "Let us be quite clear: France is not taking sides in the Algerian conflict. Obviously we remain bent on seeing peace returning to Algeria."

The Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua, said the toll was relatively light compared with the risks run during the operation. He said he had ordered the storming when two shots were heard coming from the Airbus after the hijackers gave a deadline for authorities to refuel the aircraft.

Major Denis Favier, who led the assault which freed the remaining passengers, said the decision to attack was taken when it became obvious that negotiations had failed. The hijackers said they wanted fuel to fly on to Paris; Major Favier said the quantity requested suggested they wanted to fly further.

He added the hijackers had roughed up a passenger and fired a volley of shots across the airport just before the gendarmes rushed up the steps and exploded smoke grenades.

His men went in through three of the aircraft's doors. One group used a forward door to overpower the hijackers who were in the cockpit. The co-pilot benefited from the confusion to leap to the tarmac. One of the gendarmes lost a hand in the firefight which followed.

Over the past 15 months, as 21 French citizens have been killed in Algeria, France has repeatedly called on its nationals there to leave the country. With the French embassy, Air France aircraft were one of the last symbols of a French presence in the country. Bernard Bosson, the Transport Minister, announced yesterday that even this was to end. French companies, he said, would no longer operate air or sea links to Algeria.

The hijacking focused attention on the French dilemma over Algeria. France stresses its attachment to "democracy" in its former North African territory, but continues to back a regime known for its cruelty. The Algerian government in turn harbours a historical mistrust of Paris. While France has set out to dismantle Islamic fundamentalist guerrilla networks on its soil, French emissaries have met FIS representatives abroad and offered to serve as intermediaries with Algiers. Using the symbolism of Christmas for their most spectacular operation against French interests yet, the fundamentalist hijackers reminded France that no amount of parallel diplomacy can compensate for its support for Algiers, however lukewarm this may be.

10:15 GMT, 24 Dec: Hijackers storm plane, kill two passengers 17:00 GMT, 25 Dec: Hijackers kill French embassy cook 1:02 GMT, 26 Dec: Plane leaves Algiers for Marseilles 2:14 GMT, 26 Dec Plane arrives at Marignane airport, Marseilles 16:10 GMT, 26 Dec: Shots reported from the aircraft 16:20 GMT, 26 Dec: Crack GIGN anti-terrorist unit storms plane. Four hijackers killed. Nine gendarmes injured, one seriously. Three crew members and 13 passengers hurt