Passengers never knew they were hostages

Freed Britons offered counselling after ordeal as propaganda coup brings pressure to lift UN sanctions on Iraq
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The Independent Online

The British passengers whose plane was hijacked en route to London and forced to land in Baghdad, yesterday told of their ordeal -- and how they only became aware of their situation once they had landed.

The British passengers whose plane was hijacked en route to London and forced to land in Baghdad, yesterday told of their ordeal -- and how they only became aware of their situation once they had landed.

The 40 Britons, along with another 64 passengers and crew, were freed late on Saturday after Saudi Arabian Airlines Flight 115 touched down in the Iraqi capital and the hijackers gave themselves up to authorities. Despite some initial concerns that Saddam Hussein might try to force some political mileage from the Westerners, the freed hostages said they had been treated very well by the Iraqis.

Speaking from Baghdad's Rashid Hotel, where the passengers were put up, Jacky Stone, from London, told The Independent: "For a few minutes things were pretty scary. The first we knew was when we landed at Baghdad. We had been in the air for the right amount of time but when we landed I knew it was not Heathrow. Then a steward came onto the intercom and said 'The captain had a problem. We have landed at Baghdad but not to worry'. The atmosphere was very calm."

Mrs Stone, who is married with three children, was returning to London after an eight day work related visit to Saudi Arabia said: "The stewards on the plane we exceedingly good and the Iraqis have looked after us very well. Now we are waiting to get home."

Another passenger, Maria Scott, was travelling to Britain for the birth of her daughter's first child. "I am now beginning to worry that I will not be there in time," said Mrs Scott, a South African, who lives in Saudi Arabia, shortly before the passengers left the hotel to travel to Jeddah and then onto London. The Britons are expected to arrive at Heathrow Airport later today after overnighting in Jeddah. A specially chartered plane had last night been put on standby to return them to London.

"We will be ready to meet them and there will be counsellors available to speak to them if they feel like it," said Philip Griffin, Saudi Arabian Airlines airport manager at Heathrow. "They will be debriefed by Heathrow police and then reunited with their families and loved ones."

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's Deputy Interior Minister, Prince Ahmed, said yesterday his country would demand the immediate extradition for trial of the two hijackers, whom he identified as Faisal al-Biloowi and Ayish al-Faridi. Hijacking carries the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.

Among the other passengers aboard the flight, which was hijacked while over Egypt, was 19-year-old Saudi Prince Bandar bin Mohammed bin Saad bin Abdul-Rahman, acousin of King Fahd. Interviewed on state television on Saturday, the prince thanked the Iraqi government for the way it handled the crisis.

Quite how Iraq will respond to the Saudi demands remains unclear. The two countries have had no diplomatic relations since Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait in 1990, but a pre-Gulf War treaty provides for extradition. There was also confusion as to whether the hijackers -- one said to be a border guard, the other an undercover security officer at Jeddah airport -- were seeking asylum. Taher Haboush, the Iraqi official who led negotiations with the hijackers, said they had asked for political asylum, but the two men told reporters they wanted to leave Iraq. "We want to choose our own leaders. The time of kings and monarchies is over," Mr al-Faridi said.

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