Shiite Hijackers Free 31 Hostages
Release Ends 16 Days of Terror for Jet's Passengers
ALGIERS, Algeria--Shiite Moslem gunmen slipped out of a Kuwaiti jetliner just minutes before their 31 hostages were freed at dawn yesterday, ending 16 terror-filled days during which two passengers were killed.
The Algerian government, which served as mediator, and the hijackers had said a solution was reached, but its nature was not disclosed.
Kuwait had refused throughout the ordeal to bow to the gunmen's demand that 17 pro-Iranian extremists imprisoned in Kuwait be released.
Several hostages said they had no idea they would be freed until Algerian authorities entered the Kuwait Airways Boeing 747 about 15 minutes earlier.
A 31-year-old businessman, Tadar El-Kebi, said he saw the hijackers going through the plane trying to wipe off their finger prints shortly after 4 a.m.
"This was the first indication I had that our release was imminent," El-Kebi said.
Algerian officials said the hijackers were whisked out of the jumbo jet 20 minutes before the hostages were brought out at 6 a.m. (1 a.m. EDT).
The gunmen, whom the hostages said numbered eight, were taken in unmarked automobiles to an undisclosed location, the Algerian officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Floodlights that had bathed the blue-and-white jumbo jet nightly since it landed were turned off at 9 p.m. Tuesday, allegedly for a technical reason. They never came back on and the area around the jet was dark, making it difficult for reporters to detect any movement.
The only two women among the hostages, second cousins of Kuwait's ruler, were the first to descend the gangway from the plane.
The women, wearing black veils, were escorted to a car and taken to a hospital with their brother, who rode in an ambulance, a doctor said. The brother, the third member of the Kuwaiti royal family on the plane, was suffering from a nervous disorder.
The rest of the hostages boarded a white bus and cars and waved to reporters on the tarmac as they were driven to the airport VIP lounge. The seven crew members and 21 passengers carried hand luggage as they filed into the lounge.
The men were unshaven, looked haggard and dazed and stared vacantly.
"We lived in fear. We were very frayed. We had lost hope that it would turn out this way," said Kuwaiti student Youssef al-Angeri, 24.