Seven long hours of terror on Flight 115

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The Independent Online

Saudi Arabian Airlines flight 115 was the third London-bound flight to take off from King Abdul Aziz Airport in Jeddah yesterday. Nearly half of the 90 passengers who boarded the Boeing 777-200 plane were British, many of them returning home from a pilgrammage. They also included a member of the Saudi royal family.

Saudi Arabian Airlines flight 115 was the third London-bound flight to take off from King Abdul Aziz Airport in Jeddah yesterday. Nearly half of the 90 passengers who boarded the Boeing 777-200 plane were British, many of them returning home from a pilgrammage. They also included a member of the Saudi royal family.

As the plane lifted off from the Tarmac, most of those on board would have been thinking they were heading away from the trouble in the Middle East. The plane was meant to arrive in Heathrow at 5.40pm.

About two hours into the flight, a man left his seat and approached the cabin crew to announce he was taking over the plane. He demanded to be flown to Damascus in Syria.

The hijack took place a month after Saudi Arabian Airlines had organised a course in crisis management and hostage negotiation for the airline industry. Security and airport officials presented a three-day event in Jeddah aimed at "challenges of the new millennium in aviation security". The event, trumpeted on the airlines' website, epitomised the airline's pride in being at the forefront of air safety which will have made yesterday's events all the more shocking.

Shortly before 2pm, as the plane flew over Cairo, Egyptian civil aviation officials received an anxious radio message from the pilot informing them that flight 115 had been hijacked. Then followed a period of radio silence until the plane entered Cyprus air space. This time the message to air-traffic staff from the pilot was more desperate - the hijackers were threatening to blow up the plane.

"The hijacker is saying that he has TNT on board and he might blow the aircraft," said the message, which was broadcast on Israel radio. "We have passengers from all kinds of nationalities."

Meanwhile the Syrian authorities had decided they could not allow the plane to enter their airspace nor cross Syria to fly to Baghdad in Iraq. The plane circled eastern Cyprus airspace looking for a place to land. Eventually, it was reported, the pilot received a message to say the Syrian authorities would allow the plane to come down in Damascus.

He headed the 289-seater twin-engined aircraft, one of 16 in the Saudi Arabian Airline fleet, towards the Syrian capital, but continued on to Baghdad without landing.

At Saddam International Airport in Baghdad, a fleet of ambulances and buses, as well as a fire engine and a fuel tanker, were on standby as the plane touched down at 4.50pm.

At Heathrow the relatives' anxiety was increased by the fact that the airline was refusing to release a list of names of hostages, saying instead that if names were supplied to them they could confirm or deny their presence on board. In addition to the Britons on board, there were passengers from South Africa, the Yemen, Pakistan, Kenya, Oman, the US and Saudi Arabia.

As landing times began to appear on the arrivals board, at Heathrow the space next to flight SV 115 from Jeddah remained blank. Individuals and couples, some with young children and others carrying flowers began to arrive at the information desk.

They were quickly whisked away by security guards, who gathered around 60 friends and relatives behind the scenes. An Arab man in his 20s who had come to pick up his uncle was staring at the arrivals board when he heard the news from a reporter. "I've got to call my mum," he said, dashing off and punching numbers into a mobile phone.

In the smoking lounge, a hire driver waiting to pick up a Saudi teenager starting school in England was waiting for instructions. At 6.15pm, the word "cancelled" finally appeared on the board.

Speaking at the airport, Saudi Airlines spokesman Phillip Griffin said that around 60 friends and relatives of the passengers had gathered.

Then, after an agonising three-hour wait came the news they had hoped for with the announcement that all the passengers on board had been released into the care of the Iraqi authorities.

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