It was a hijacking with a difference.
There were no political demands. There were no negotiations over hostages.
|The moment the hijack was thwarted|
The hijackers had a far more sinister plan for Air France Flight 8969 - one that was to provide a blueprint for the al Qaeda attacks of 11 September, 2001. It was thwarted only after a siege of quite extraordinary drama.
The story began on Christmas Eve, 1994. Four men in Algerian police uniforms boarded the Air France flight as it sat on the tarmac in Algiers.
They said they needed to check the passengers’ passports but their nervous behaviour - and the fact they were armed - raised the suspicions of one of the flight attendants.
|Hijackers belonged to Armed Islamic Group (seen here)|
Algerian troops based at the airport also grew suspicious: they had not expected the plane to be searched. They began surrounding the plane, at which point the four ‘police’ revealed that they were terrorists. The plane had been hijacked.
The first thing they did was to make all the women on board cover their heads. They then broadcast a chilling message over the intercom: ‘Allah has selected us as his soldiers. We are here to wage war in his name.’
The airport control tower tried to negotiate, but the terrorists were very different from those involved in previous hijacks. They said - ominously - that they intended to fly the plane to Paris.
|The plane on the ground: destination, Eiffel Tower|
The Algerian authorities refused to remove the landing stairs, thereby preventing the plane from taking off. The hijackers decided to force the issue. They singled out one of the passengers - an Algerian police officer - and shot him in the head.
‘Don’t kill me. I have a wife and child,’ were his last words.
The leader of the hijackers, Abdul Yahia, was ruthless and fanatical. No less fanatical was his sidekick, named Lofti. He was given the nickname ‘Madman’ by the unfortunate hijacked passengers. Another hijacker was known as ‘the Killer’, since it was he who undertook the shootings.
|First, the hijack. Then, the movie: The Assault|
He soon led away his second victim, a commercial attaché from the Vietnamese Embassy in Algiers named Bui Giang To. He was also shot in the head
The night time hours were extremely tense, although there were no more shootings. In the morning - on Christmas Day - the French Interior Minister learned some terrible news from a mole in the Algiers Islamic Group who had planned the hijack.
‘The terrorists’ true aim was to crash the plane in Paris,’ he said. In fact, they intended to crash it into the Eiffel Tower, thereby destroying one of the great symbols of France.
When the plane was once again refused clearance for take off, a third passenger was shot. The French government now pleaded with its Algerian counterpart to allow the plane to get airborne, but with only enough fuel to reach Marseilles.
On 26 December, the plane finally took off, touching down in Marseilles at 3.30am. The hijackers demanded 27 tonnes of fuel, far more than the 9 tonnes needed to reach Paris. The inevitable conclusion was that the plane was to be turned into a deadly fireball.
By now, a crack French military unit was on standby, waiting to storm the aircraft. The moment for action came at 5pm, when Yahia was about to order the death of another passenger.
The crack forces rapidly moved the air-stairs towards the airplane. They then forced the doors and entered the plane, firing all the time. The hijackers returned fire and bullets were soon flying through the cabin. Grenades were also detonated, filling the plane with dense smoke.
|Deadly 9/11 attacks|
The fire-fight was described by one flight attendant as ‘an apocalypse.’ But it was an effective apocalypse. Within 20 minutes, all four hijackers were dead and the 166 passengers and crew were escorted to safety. They were shocked, stunned and exhausted from their ordeal, but at least they were still alive.
The hijackers never reached Paris and their ultimate goal of the Eiffel Tower. But they provided the blueprint for a very similar, and far more deadly hijacking on 11 September, 2001.
On that occasion, nearly 3,000 innocent people tragically lost their lives.
NOW PUBLISHED IN PAPERBACK