WORLD

The agony of Flight 422

BOB LEVIN April 25 1988
WORLD

The agony of Flight 422

BOB LEVIN April 25 1988

The agony of Flight 422

WORLD

Sitting on the tarmac at Algiers’s palm-fringed airport, an incongruously placid setting with a mountainous backdrop and sunny sky, Kuwait Airways Flight 422 settled into an odd sort of normalcy in the second week of its deadly and dangerous odyssey. Algerian negotiators came and went, trying to persuade the eight Arabicspeaking hijackers on board to release their 32 hostages. Ground crews arrived to clean up the craft’s bathrooms; messengers met the hijackers’ requests for 50 Cokes and 50 cakes— and clean underwear.

On Thursday the gunmen even agreed to taxi the blue-and-white Boeing 747 away from the main terminal to avoid interfering with Algeria’s official welcome of visiting Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda. “No problem, no problem,” a hijacker radioed the control tower. But beneath the peculiar calm lay a grim reality: the hooded hijackers, who had donned death shrouds and dubbed the jumbo jet “The Plane of the Great Martyrs,” had already murdered two hostages—and could well kill again.

At week’s end, despite repeated hints that a negotiated settlement might be imminent, the ordeal dragged on. The hijackers, who had seized the plane on April 5 over the Arabian Sea, freed one more hostage, a 70-year-old diabetic from Kuwait. They had already released 57 hostages during their first stop in Mashhad, Iran, on April 5 and 6 and another 12 on April 13 on their second stop, in Larnaca, Cyprus. In Algiers, after meeting with the gunmen for 48 minutes inside the plane, Algerian Interior Minister ElHadi Khediri reported that the re-

maining hostages appeared to be in “good condition.”

But one of them—a male cousin of the Emir of Kuwait, accompanied by two female relatives—was said by freed hostages to have broken down and to be weeping uncontrollably. Still, the hijackers refused to back down from their main demand, which one of them repeated to three journalists summoned to the plane’s open doorway on Saturday: that the Kuwaitis release 17 imprisoned Shiite Moslems convicted of the 1983 bombing of the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait, in which four people died and 87 were injured. Otherwise, he said, the hostages would die.

Although the hijackers’ identities remained uncertain, several sources said that they had ties to Iran. Some of the hostages freed in Cyprus said that on the Iran stopover the hijackers had acquired additional weapons and á explosives—and at least à one new gunman. Ac§ cording to a report in the Kuwait daily Al-Qabas, the newcomer was Imad Mughniyeh, 36, a Lebanese Shiite Moslem who is a key figure in the pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad (Holy War) group.

Yasser Arafat, whose Palestine Liberation Organization helped to mediate with the hijackers in Cyprus, was even more blunt about the alleged Iranian connection. In a television interview, Arafat said flatly that, according to his information, the Iranian government was “behind the whole operation.” The Tehran government vehemently denied the charge.

The hijackers were plainly a zealous and brutal band. They first seized control of Flight 422, with 112 passengers and crew aboard, en route from Bangkok to Kuwait. After three days of

fruitless talks with Kuwaiti officials in Mashhad in northeastern Iran, they refuelled and took off again. They next tried to land in Beirut. But despite the impassioned pleading of Iraqi pilot Subhi Na’im Youssef that the plane was fast running out of fuel, Beirut authorities, with chilling nonchalance, refused to let the jet land.

In nearby Cyprus, where the authorities gave permission to land at Larnaca on humanitarian grounds, the gunmen—to back up their demands for the plane to be refuelled—tortured and shot one of the hostages, 25-year-old Kuwaiti border guard Abdullah Mohammed al-Khalidi, and dumped his nearly naked body onto the runway. But they backed away from a chilling threat to carry out a “slow, quiet massacre” of the hostages and held a series of negotiations with Malath Abdo, deputy director of the PLO mission in Cyprus. The PLO has mediated in previous hijack crises; in this instance, its motives seemed to be, in part at least, to boost its own prestige and improve its chances of obtaining a place at an international conference that might eventually decide the future of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

After the first murder it seemed, according to a Cypriot government spokesman, that the gunmen “might be changing their attitude.” But only hours later, as yet another refuelling deadline passed,

a hijacker warned over the radio, “Either we receive the fuel or you receive the corpse.” And minutes after that a second body—that of 20-year-old Kuwaiti fireman Khaled Ayoub Bandar —was dropped out of the plane.

The following day, last Tuesday, the hijackers even threatened to kill themselves, together with their hostages, declaring that “a martyr is never dead but is always alive and near God.” That same evening, however, a compromise was struck. The Cypriots

backed away from their refusal to refuel the plane unless all the hostages were freed. And after an hour of final talks at the door of the aircraft, trucks began pumping gas into the jet in return for the freeing of 12 stunned hostages who shakily descended the mobile stairway.

As the plane began to taxi down the runway for takeoff, bound for Algiers, pilot Youssef radioed to the tower: “From all the crew and passengers, we thank you for your hospitality. We hope to see you again.” But a hijacker intoned ominously: “We maintain our demands. We insist we will hold onto the plane until martyrdom.” Meanwhile, the released hostages were examined at Larnaca General Hospital. Dr. Chris Miltiades said that, while the 12 men were in good health, they were tired and “terribly frightened—you could see fear in their eyes.” Speaking to reporters, the ex-hostages said that, with the window shutters drawn and strict orders to keep their heads down, they had been completely disoriented throughout the ordeal.

They had not even known of the two murders, they said, and they learned their whereabouts only by checking the writing on the sugar packets that came with meals. While the hijackers had treated some passengers with respect—particularly the Kuwaiti royals and the elderly—all had been handcuffed and several ex-hostages reported being hit. Said 50-yearold Kuwaiti businessman Saleh Ibrahim: “We died 20 deaths every day.”

One of the passengers, Mohammed Ramadan Ali, 43, who holds citizenship in both Egypt and the United States, had swiftly hidden his U.S. passport. “Once they knew I had an American passport,” he said, “I was sure I would be killed.” Ali also provided evidence of Iranian involvement. He told a television interviewer that at Mashhad two new men came on board carrying “weapons and 1 bombs and ropes and explo| sives.” Another ex-hostage said s that the hijackers “were six, but in Mashhad they became seven.”

Meanwhile, in Kuwait, about 2,000 mourners thronged to the combined funeral of Khalidi and Bandar, the two Kuwaiti men murdered by the hijackers. The mourners surged forward emotionally as the bodies, draped in the four-colored Kuwaiti flag, were lowered into the graves. Many mourners voiced support for their government’s refusal to give in to the terrorists’ demands. “We are Arabs,” said Ibrahim al-Raba’aian, an in-law of Bandar’s family. “The Arab never retreats.”

It was at Kuwait’s request that nonaligned Algeria agreed to try to defuse the hijack crisis. Algerians have managed successful mediations in other hostage situations: they helped to free American diplomats in 1981 after 444 days’ captivity at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and another group of U.S. hostages from a hijacked TWA jet in Algiers in 1985. After meeting with the hijackers last week, Khederi reported, “They told me they would try to be very calm, to not use violence.” But such assurances rang decidedly hollow. The following afternoon, hostage Zaid Ahmed of Kuwait radioed to the control tower that the hijackers were still demanding the release of the 17 prisoners in Kuwait. “Unless they get this,” Ahmed said, “they will kill us all.” As the tense drama continued at the weekend, that murderous possibility still could not be ruled out.

rrorist leaning out to cover Kuwaiti flag: ‘We are not bandits. We are men of principle’

BOB LEVIN