After 76 hours, they filed off the plane to face a new uncertainty

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They came out of the plane into the biting wind and the spotlights hesitantly, women looking back towards their menfolk as they hugged their babies closer to them.

They came out of the plane into the biting wind and the spotlights hesitantly, women looking back towards their menfolk as they hugged their babies closer to them.

They stepped out under the gaze of lines of police marksmen. In the final hours of the Stansted hijack, the situation was at its most tense and no one wanted to make a mistake.

Then at this crucial point a series of sirens began to scream and vehicles with flashing red lights flashing hurtled across the tarmac. There was instant confusion and panic, cries of alarm and anger by the hijackers fearing they had fallen into a trap.

The sirens had, in fact, nothing to do with the stranded Afghan airliner and had been in response to a fire breaking out at another part of the airport.

But it was a nailbiting demonstration of the sheer fragility of the painstakingly orchestrated plan to end Britain's longest ever hijack.

A total of 85 passengers, among them 21 children and 17 women, left in the first batch, being driven off into the night for medical examination and then questioning on exactly what part they had played in the take-over of the Ariana Boeing 727 and its 3,652-mile journey.

Two-and-a-half hours later the remaining 66 passengers, all male, made their way out in single file, huddled deep into their coats. As they passed the lines of police 17 were pulled out and taken off to waiting cars. These were the chief suspects.

Thus the Stansted Airport hijack ended. It had taken 76 hours but it had ended peacefully, as the authorities had always sought. Undoubtedly this will add the reputation of Britain not only as a country where hijackings do not end in gun battles, but also as a place where hijackers never get away with it.

This denouement was only the beginning of the accusations and recriminations. This was not a proper hijack at all, snorted several newspapers and politicians in outrage, but an elaborate scam to gain asylum. The first blatant example of this exploitation of the British taxpayer was that the passengers were actually going to be put up at the Stansted Hilton (which had put up the price of some rooms to more than £200.)

But the authorities were facing more pressing problems than accusations of profligacy. They faced the highly unusual situation in which a large number of passengers, instead of saying the Afghani equivalent of "It wasn't me, guv" were only too keen to say "It's a fair cop".

The reason, they believe, is that such a claim might bring a criminal charge of hijacking, but the sentence is likely to be a short one with the almost certain guarantee of asylum to follow. Merely being a passenger on an internal flight, however, would not constitute an attempt to get away from an oppressive regime.

For Essex Police Chief Constable David Stevens, these were problems to be resolved by Jack Straw and the Home Office. His hostage negotiators had carried out their task well - a job made more difficult however by the lack of any specific demands. For days the dialogue had revolved mainly around food and provisions.

The police negotiators did their best to establish empathy with the hijackers and soon the two sides were calling each other by their first names.

At first the Afghans were bewildered and exasperated by the way the police honed in on any request, however small, asking for precise details of what they wanted. In the case of a pen, they would be asked repeatedly whether a blue or a black one would be preferred. One senior police officer said: "This may sound bizarre, but it works. The main aim is to tie them up in knots and then gradually introduce your own demands."

The hijackers' request that their refugee status should be recognised before any criminal charges were brought was rejected. However, they appear to have been led to believe that they would never be forcibly repatriated. There was also the constant reassurance that they would have a fair trial.

On Tuesday night, just as the situation was heading for conclusion, four crew members escaped from the plane. The hijackers reacted with fury, threatening passengers and preparing for a possible storming of the plane. Listening devices picked up shouting and plans for a confrontation.

But, after two hours, communications were restored. At this stage the police also offered the hijackers the chance of a face-to-face meeting. This was accepted and at 2.30 yesterday morning two of the Afghans came out to meet the police officers to whom they had been talking for the past four days.

At this very late stage, the hijackers asked to make a statement about the political situation in Afghanistan. This was also the point at which the plan was hammered out for the release of hostages.

Senior officers were expecting a final demand that more than 40 family members of the hostage-takers on board the plane should be given immunity from prosecution, but instead the message appeared to be they did not mind prosecution at all. "A very curious hijack, this," one senior officer mused when it was all over.