This hijacking isn't quite like any other
Nicosia, Cyprus — During the 100 hours that the hijacked Kuwaiti airliner spent at Larnaca Airport in Cyprus, negotiators realized they faced an unprecedented situation that could have implications for future hijackings. Cypriot and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) officials, who worked with a Kuwaiti delegation at the airport to handle the crisis, say they have concluded that:
The hijackers were an extremely well-organized, well-trained, and highly educated team of specialists able to outwit any ploys tried against them, and able to keep outside negotiators off balance.
They had the means and were prepared to blow up the plane and die for their cause if an attack were attempted.
They had some kind of communication link with their leaders outside the plane, perhaps in Beirut, and were receiving instructions and information over that link.
There was virtually no way the airliner could be stormed unless a decision had been taken to risk the death of most, if not all, of the hostages.
The Kuwaitis are just as adamant privately as they are publicly in their absolute refusal to consider any kind of compromise over the 17 extremists jailed for bomb attacks in Kuwait. The release of the 17 is the basic demand of the hijackers.
At press time Monday, the hijackers were holding firm to that demand as a condition for releasing the 31 hostages aboard the airliner at Algiers airport. When the Cypriot and PLO negotiators made their first trip to the plane for direct talks with the hijackers on the afternoon of April 9, they immediately realized they were not dealing with amateurs.
In the doorway of the Boeing 747 they found two hijackers wearing hoods from airline pillow-covers cut in half, with holes cut for the eyes and mouth. One was holding a grenade over his head. By suspending blankets on three sides just inside the door, they created a kind of negotiating booth that allowed the negotiators to take one step into the plane without seeing farther.
During all the 22 subsequent visits, one of the hijackers kept a constant watch on the aircraft steps which had been wheeled up on each occasion. Grenades and pistols were ready at all times. The negotiators also saw machine pistols, and, when they cast doubt on the hijackers' threats to blow the plane up, they were shown a large block of explosives.
``It was as though they had a real operations room, going on in there,'' one of the negotiators said in an interview. ``They were experts at their job - very well organized, highly educated, and well trained. Some of them were monitoring and analyzing all the press and radio stations, and they frequently quoted back media reports to us, which sometimes complicated the situation.''
As the talks went on over four days, the negotiators also became convinced the hijackers had some kind of radio link with the outside. Several times when the negotiators went to the plane to inform the hijackers of some development, they found that they were already apprised of it, although it was not yet publicly known.
They also concluded that instructions conveyed to the hijackers over that link could be the only explanation for frequent shifts in the position and mood of the gunmen. This included their decision, early on April 11, to cancel an agreement exchanging 34 hostages for 104 tons of fuel - a decision that cost one of the hostages, a 20-year-old Kuwaiti fireman, his life.
In common with many of the released hostages, the negotiators formed the impression that more hijackers, heavier weaponry, and perhaps some sophisticated high-frequency radio equipment were taken aboard during the four-day stop at Mashhad in Iran.
``There were two distinct levels of weaponry - small grenades and pistols which could be dismantled, and the large machine pistols and heavy explosives, which would have been hard to smuggle on board at [its origination in] Bangkok,'' said one official involved in the talks.
The preparedness of the hijackers and their evident expertise in all aspects of the operation contrasted strangely with their evident readiness to face ``martyrdom'' if need be.
Negotiators say that on two occasions the hijackers subsequently revealed that they had come close to blowing up the plane. One was when they smelled fumes from the air conditioning, and thought they were being poisoned. The other was when a Greek Air Force C-130 military transport plane landed within full view of the hijackers, who later accepted the control tower's explanation that it was a routine weekly resupply flight for the Greek troops in Cyprus.
When the hijackers announced on April 12 that they were donning their deathshrouds and would wear them until they were reunited with their 17 jailed ``brothers,'' this was at first taken as a figure of speech.
But when the negotiators returned to the plane, they found the hijackers swathed in white winding sheets with the words: ``We are in love with martyrdom'' daubed in blood-red Arabic lettering.
``Neither the Cypriots, the Kuwaitis, nor the PLO men knew from one half-hour to the next what the hijackers would do,'' said an official involved in the crisis. Holding the psychological initiative, the hijackers - believed to be seven or eight in number - were able to sleep too, avoiding any chance of psychological fatigue.
The evident seriousness and preparedness of the hijackers, the configuration of the Boeing 747, and the conditions at Larnaca airport led Cypriot officials to rule out storming the plane unless a massacre was already inevitable.
At one stage in the negotiations, Cypriot and PLO officials approved a deal under which the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, would escort one of the 17 convicts out of Kuwait. But, officials say, the Kuwaiti delegation rejected that and other proposals.
With Kuwait absolutely ruling out any compromise over the 17, the talks came down to what the negotiators termed a ``bazaar'' haggling over how many hostages would be released in exchange for how much fuel. The hijackers, freeing 12 hostages for 100 tons of fuel, also won a guarantee from Mr. Arafat and Algiers of safe conduct to Algeria.
As for the remaining 38 or so hostages, the negotiators say the hijackers said only: ``We have no problem with the Algerians, we will cooperate with them on a brotherly basis.''
This was construed by Cypriot and PLO officials as a commitment to release the hostages after reaching Algiers. They were evidently wrong.