Algerian Hijack: Firefight in cockpit `hell' ended nightmare

The Rescue
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The Independent Online
French anti-terrorist police, who freed all passengers and crew from a hijacked Air France airliner yesterday, came under a hail of fire when they burst into the cockpit where the four gunmen were holed up.

"It was hell," said the head of the GIGN (Groupe d'Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale) commando force which launched the assault that killed all four young Islamic fundamentalist guerillas.

"They barricaded themselves in the cockpit and opened the door from time to time to lob a grenade at us. We came under a rain of automatic fire," Major Denis Favier said, Major Favier said the commandos lobbed stun grenades into the passenger cabin aftera shot was fired at the airport control tower. "The only way to put an end to it was to take offensive action," he said.

Major Favier said his men used an emergency plan to storm the aircraft at three points simultaneously because they did not know exactly where the gunmen were. His force suffered its worst casualties at the front of the plane during an intense gunbattle lasting about four minutes.

"The unit that entered the front of the plane found the four terrorists holed up in the cockpit," he said. Witnesses counted at least 50 volleys of automatic fire and numerous explosions.

"[The GIGN] told us to get down and crawl towards the exit," said one passenger who gave his first name as Areski. A woman said: "They told us to lie low and when my husband raised his head, a stewardess shoved it into the seat."

The luckiest ones, however, were the last 44 passengers to clear security checks at Algiers' Houari Boumedienne airport on Saturday morning. They were abruptly ordered back to the lounge while heading for the Airbus due to leave for Paris at 11.15. A little later, they learnt that the other 227 passengers were in the hands of Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas.

It was only when one passenger, an Algerian police officer, was ordered to a forward door, that the others realised the danger. The policeman began to plead: "Don't kill me! I'm married, I have a child." A shot rang out and the man's body rolled down thesteps. A Vietnamese was also taken to the door and shot. The motive was unknown. According to reports from Hanoi, he was Bui Giang To, 48, the commercial counsellor at Vietnam's embassy in Algiers.

A teenage girl among 63 passengers, mainly women and children, freed on Saturday had to step over the two bodies to leave the plane. The hijackers, carrying automatic weapons, were aged between 20 and 25, she said. The hijackers, who called each other only by numbers, "kept saying Islamic prayers and handed out scarves so that the women could cover their heads", the teenager said.

With around 40 French nationals left among the 173 people on the plane, the hijackers sought to reassure the Algerians who were in the majority. They only wanted to "terrorise" foreigners, they said.

As the Algerian authorities began negotiations, they received the hijackers' first demand: the release from house arrest of Abassi Madani and Ali Benhadj, leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). If this demand were not met by Christmas morning, other passengers would die, they said.

As the deadline for the FIS leaders' release passed, the hijackers asked only to be flown out of the country. Thirty hours after the ordeal began, another three passengers were allowed off, an apparent sign that the hijackers' position was softening.

Then, after the aircraft had been refuelled, the hijackers asked for steps leading to one of its doors to be removed to allow take-off by 9.30pm on Sunday. The Algerian authorities ignored the request; at 9.31, a shot rang out and a third body fell to the ground. The victim was a French embassy cook who had planned to spend Christmas with his children.

Just after midnight on Sunday, France said that it was "ready to accept" the aircraft and Algeria dropped its refusal to let it go. At 3.33am yesterday, the Airbus landed at Marseilles.

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