A chilling scenario -- and one that was averted only because commandos of the French gendarmerie stormed the Air France jetliner last week on the tarmac of Marseilles' Marignane Airport, killing the four hijackers in a brisk firefight and freeing the plane's 173 passengers and crew. Miraculously, none of the rescuers or hostages perished during the assault. Thirteen passengers, three crew members and nine policemen were wounded, only one seriously, in one of the most successful antiterrorist operations in aviation history.
But the repercussions of the episode, which had begun 54 hours earlier at Algiers' Houari-Boumediene Airport, did not end with that 17-minute firefight. Several hours after the rescue, the Armed Islamic Group (G.I.A.), the militant movement that claimed responsibility for the hijacking, avenged its "martyrs" by murdering four Roman Catholic priests -- three French and one Belgian -- in the Algerian city of Tizi-Ouzou. The deaths brought to 76 the number of foreigners killed in Algeria, including 26 French nationals, since the G.I.A. began its antiforeign assassination spree in September 1993.
The hostage drama began on Christmas Eve as Air France Flight 8969 prepared for a scheduled 11:15 a.m. departure for Paris. Most of the 227 passengers had settled into their seats in an almost festive mood, as they looked forward to joining family and friends for the holidays. The boarding of four armed men in blue uniforms with Air Algerie identification badges caused no alarm. Explaining they were security agents, the men proceeded to check the passengers' passports. Then they suddenly closed and locked the doors. "I knew it was a hostage taking when they shouted, 'Allah is great!' " recalled a 40-year-old Algerian-born mechanic now living in France. "I thought of my children back in France, and I became afraid. Three men entered the cockpit, the fourth covered us with his Kalashnikov. No one budged. Then the waiting started."
For two of the travelers, the wait was over all too soon. One traveler, an Algerian policeman identified during the passport check, was ordered by the hijackers to the front of the plane. Passengers heard him plead, "Don't kill . me, I have a wife and child!" The terrorists shot him in the head and dumped him outside onto a baggage cart, where he lay in agony for some time. The second victim was Bui Giang To, 48, a commercial attache at the Vietnamese embassy in Algiers. "They asked the Vietnamese man sitting in the rear to come forward," recounted one of the passengers. "Poor guy -- we saw him come back to get his leather jacket. Then we heard the shot."
According to several passengers' accounts, the hijackers appeared to be in their early 20s; they were beardless and had closely cropped hair. "They were polite, correct," said one woman. "But they had the determined air of cold- blooded killers." Said another passenger: "They seemed excited, very euphoric. They told us that they would give a lesson to the French and to the world, that they would show what they were capable of." The hijackers made certain everyone got the point by brandishing Kalashnikov assault rifles, Uzi pistols, homemade hand grenades and two packs of dynamite. Later they placed one 10-stick pack of dynamite in the cockpit and a second under a seat in the middle of the plane and linked them with detonator wire.
One of the terrorists' first concerns was to see that all the women, including the stewardesses, were veiled in the fundamentalist Islamic fashion: those who had no scarves were given cabin blankets. The men recited verses from the Koran and tried to reassure their Algerian compatriots, but, in the words of one passenger, "terrorized" non-Algerians. "They had a kind of art in their terror," an elderly Algerian man told the TF1 television network after the rescue. "Twenty minutes of relaxation and 20 minutes of torture. You never knew what was next."
As Algerian police ringed the airport, Interior Minister Abderahmane Meziane-Cherif rushed to the control tower and began negotiating with the hijackers via the cockpit radio. Using the pilot, Bernard Delhemme, to speak for them, the terrorists demanded the release from house arrest of Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, the leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front (F.I.S.), the political party that was banned by the Algerian government in 1992. "Start by freeing the women, the elderly and the children if you want us to start talking," replied Cherif. About four hours into the negotiations, the hijackers began releasing passengers, and by the end of Saturday had freed 63.
As the talks continued, Algerian police, using night-vision devices, identified the hijack leader as Abdul Abdullah Yahia, 25, alias "the Emir." A petty thief and a greengrocer from the tough Algiers neighborhood of Bab El Oued, Yahia was described as belonging to the G.I.A. and a man who had taken part in earlier "attacks of rare violence and savagery." The negotiators said Yahia spoke "approximate" French, seemed "intellectually limited" and ended every sentence with "Inch'Allah," or God willing.
Once they knew with whom they were dealing, the police tried to use family pressure to make Yahia back off. According to the French weekly Nouvel Observateur, they brought his mother to the airport and let her talk directly on the radio to the cockpit. "In the name of God, I implore you, my son, to let all the passengers go," she said. Yahia reportedly fired a few rounds in the direction of the control tower and replied, "Mother, we'll meet in paradise!"
In France, meanwhile, top officials had called off their Christmas holidays to deal with the crisis. At noon on Dec. 24, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe convened a crisis team, while Interior Minister Charles Pasqua met with aides long into the night. The first objective of the French was to persuade the Algerians to allow the elite National Gendarmes Intervention Group (G.I.G.N.) to provide "technical" assistance for a raid on the plane. The antiterrorist unit had been put on alert shortly after the plane's seizure. At 8 p.m. on Dec. 24, some nine hours after the Airbus was taken, about 40 G.I.G.N. troopers took off from a military base near Paris aboard an Air France Airbus A300, identical to the one that had been hijacked. Created in 1974, the G.I.G.N. comprises some 60 "supergendarmes" deployed in four units of 15 men each. Highly trained and motivated, they specialize in such crisis situations as hostage takings and hijackings. Their commander was Major Denis Favier, 35, a brilliant graduate of France's top military school but a man who some of the commando veterans felt had been prematurely promoted and was thus unprepared to lead a dangerous mission. The gendarmes' plane put down in Spain, at the airport of Palma de Mallorca, 200 miles north of Algiers, to await developments. The squad learned that the Algerians would not allow it on their soil.
In the Alpine resort of Chamonix, where he had gone to spend Christmas at his chalet, Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, a man dogged by a reputation for avoiding difficult calls, faced an agonizing decision. Expected soon to announce his presidential candidacy, he stood to see his front-runner status compromised should any operation ordered by him turn into a debacle. Yet he had to take action. On Christmas morning Balladur flew to Paris and took personal responsibility for managing the crisis.
By then the hijackers had dropped their demand for the liberation of the F.I.S. leaders; now they insisted on being flown to Paris. That triggered a tug-of-war between the Algerians, who were adamant that the plane stay in Algiers, and the French, who wanted it on their territory so they could deal with the situation directly. Things came to a head late on Dec. 25, when the terrorists laid down an ultimatum: if the boarding ramp was not pulled back and the plane was not allowed to take off before 9:30 p.m., they would kill a hostage every half hour. Their first victim, they said, would be Yannick Beugnet, a cook at the French ambassador's residence in Algiers. He was brought to the cockpit and pleaded into the microphone: "If you don't allow the plane to depart, they will kill me." The French wanted the ramp pulled back. "The Algerians said, 'No, no, we are sure they are bluffing,' " a French diplomat recalled. "Five minutes later, the hijackers killed the cook and threw his body on the tarmac."
Balladur was livid at the news. He informed Algerian Prime Minister Mokdad Sifi that he held "Algerian authorities responsible for the security of the French nationals in the plane." According to several French publications, including the Nouvel Observateur, the Algerians attempted to make the departure of the plane contingent on a resumption of French arms shipments to Algeria. At the end of his patience, Balladur called President Lamine Zeroual just before midnight and told him that "France is ready to receive immediately the Air France plane with its passengers on French soil." Early Monday morning the Airbus took off and headed out over the Mediterranean.
At 3:33 a.m., it touched down at Marseilles, ostensibly for a refueling stop. Only minutes earlier, Major Favier and his G.I.G.N. troopers had arrived from Mallorca at an adjacent air base. They spent the morning hours practicing every detail of a rescue operation on their Airbus while Marseilles police chief Alain Gehin negotiated with the hijackers from the control tower.
Still using pilot Delhemme to speak for them, the hijackers broke radio silence at 6 a.m. to demand 27 tons of fuel and permission to fly to Paris. Since the trip normally requires only 10 tons, French officials feared the militants had other plans. One possibility was that they would head for a friendly Islamic country -- perhaps Iran, or Sudan, or Yemen; another that they were scheming to blow up the fuel-laden plane over the capital.
A few hours later, that hypothesis gained weight with word that an anonymous informant had warned the French consulate in Oran, Algeria, that the plane was "a flying bomb that will explode over Paris." From accounts of passengers released in Algiers, the French had already learned that there was dynamite on board; demolition experts would subsequently confirm that the explosives were placed in such a manner as to rip the plane apart if triggered.
Gehin played for time, trying to wear down the hijackers and win the release of more passengers while the G.I.G.N. prepared for its assault. "Listen," Yahia said at one point, "in my opinion, you want us to blow up everything right here! You have 1 1/2 hours to let us take off for Paris -- until 9:40." The negotiators succeeded in pushing back the ultimatum by agreeing to supply more food and water, empty the toilets and provide vacuum cleaners for the plane.
The servicing was done by G.I.G.N. men wearing -- in an ironic reversal of how the hijack had started in Algiers -- airport staff uniforms. The troopers were able to ascertain that the plane's doors were not blocked or booby- trapped. According to some accounts, the policemen also slipped tiny eavesdropping devices into the aircraft. Along with external surveillance devices -- infrared-vision equipment and "cannon" microphones trained on the windows and fuselage -- the bugs would have allowed the gendarmes to follow the hijackers' movements inside the aircraft.
As the gendarmes prepared to make their move, the Airbus started its engines at 4:45 p.m., taxied slowly across the tarmac and stopped within 10 feet of the main terminal. Yahia now issued his final ultimatum: If the plane did not take off by 5 p.m., he said, "we will take action." At 5:08, one of the terrorists fired two shots at the control tower, shattering its bay window. Pasqua immediately gave the green light for the gendarmes' attack.
At 5:17 p.m. the G.I.G.N. unit moved. Approaching the plane from the rear and sides so they could not be seen, three groups of commandos in black ski masks and combat fatigues advanced atop three mobile loading ramps. The first unit, led by Favier, headed for the forward right door, opened its lock and stormed inside, guns blazing. Holed up in the cockpit, the hijackers met them with what Favier later described as "a wall of gunfire" through the door. "It was hell in there!"
Simultaneously, the two other teams entered through the two rear doors, deploying escape chutes and herding passengers out the emergency exits. Paratroopers met them on the tarmac and instructed them to crawl toward the terminal, where the wounded were given emergency treatment, mostly for scrapes and bruises. The rear cabin was filled with smoke, riddled with stray gunfire and rocked by grenade blasts. "The bullets were flying all around me," recounted one passenger, an Algerian merchant marine captain. "We expected death, we were waiting for the explosion," said another Algerian passenger, Ali Kalak. "We never thought there would be such a successful intervention."
Yet somehow most of the hostages managed to keep their heads. A mother traveling with her daughter pushed her child to the floor as soon as she saw the hooded silhouettes of the French commandos. "In spite of the gunshots," she says, "we were reassured by the orders they were shouting to us, the impression that the situation was in hand. We crawled to a rear door, jumped into the void and landed on a chute." Another passenger, traveling with his family, saw a mobile ramp full of gendarmes pass his window and knew an attack was imminent. "I told my wife and children to duck down," he recounts. "There were explosions, gunfire, but we didn't see anything. That's all. I had the impression that it only lasted a quarter of a second." "There was gunfire in every direction," says an Algerian mechanic. "I crawled to the airport building and I looked around me. I saw that my three brothers were alive, and I thanked God."
Up front the firefight continued. Though they were wearing bulletproof vests, the first four commandos to enter the plane were wounded. "Those guys were firing through the walls of the plane -- we received hundreds of rounds in the first minutes," recalled Favier. "I occasionally glimpsed part of the face of one of the shooters through a gap in the door, or a hand that threw a grenade."
Only one of the hijackers' homemade grenades went off, doing little damage. The gendarmes countered with concussion grenades, which temporarily deafen and blind, allowing them to burst into the cockpit and shoot down the terrorists.
"Stop firing," the plane's navigator, Alain Bossuat, at last told the tower. "They're all dead in here. There are two Frenchmen alive." The other survivor in the cockpit was Delhemme, who, like Bossuat, had minor wounds; both had been protected by the bodies of the first two hijackers to be killed. Copilot Jean-Paul Borderie was the most seriously injured: he had leaped from a blown-out cockpit window and fallen 16 feet to the tarmac, fracturing his elbow and thigh.
At 5:35 Favier radioed a message to the tower: "The operation is terminated. Damage limited." The 54-hour ordeal of Air France Flight 8969 was over.