Aircraft Hijacking in Malta
Hijacking in Aviation
by Major Tony Abela
Aircraft hijacking is the take-over of an aircraft by a (usually) armed person or group. Unlike the hijacking of land vehicles, it is usually not perpetrated in order to rob the cargo. Rather, most aircraft hijackings are committed to use the passengers as hostages and to obtain transport to a location or make political pressure on a particular country, government or organisation. In America it is more commonly referred to as ‘Skyjack’.
On 11 September 2001, the hijackers used the aircraft as suicide missiles and the overall aim was a security threat operation.
Normally hijacks will either end as a compromise between the original demands of the hijackers and the authorities, after sometimes long negotiations, or in extreme cases will end up in a storming operation of the aircraft by specially trained forces with the ultimate aim to rescue the hostages.
Hijacks are not something which has only recent history, but as early as commercial aviation took off, we had experienced a number of hijacks, some were farcical but most of them have been of a very serious nature.
The first recorded aircraft hijack was on February 21, 1931, in Arequipa, Peru. Byron Rickards flying a Ford Tri-motor was approached on the ground by armed revolutionaries. He refused to fly them anywhere and after a ten day stand-off Rickards was informed that the revolution was successful and he could go in return for giving one of their number a lift to Lima. In 1973 to the day, that is 21st February, Israeli fighter aircraft shot down a Libyan Airlines jet killing 100, over the Sinai Desert, while way back in 1431 on the same date the trial of Joan of Arc began.
The first hijack of a commercial airliner probably happened on 16th July 1948, when a failed attempt to gain control of a Cathay Pacific seaplane caused it to crash into the sea off Macao. The exact facts were never proved.
It is estimated that about 60% of the hijacks have been refugee escapes, and in 1968/69 the hijacks increased sharply in number. In 1968 alone there were 27 attempted hijacks from Cuba which some of them failed. 82 attempts were recorded worldwide during 1969, more than twice the amount attempted between 1947 and 1967. Most of them were Palestinians using hijacking as a political weapon to promote their cause and to force the Israeli governments to release Palestinian prisoners from jail.
Airliner hijackings have been on the decline and since the peak of 385 incidents between 1967-76, there were 300 incidents between 1977 and 1986. Between 1987 and 1996 the figure was down to 212. Since then hijacking seemed out of fashion or more difficult to carry since aviation security was enhanced worldwide mainly as a result of technological advances in screening and x-ray machines used in airports. So it was no surprise that the terrorist had to think of other innovations and the 11 September incident was a classical example.
In the history of aircraft hijacking one should at least refer to some particular incidents, such as:
1958 – First Cuba to U.S. hijacking
1960 – The first US to Cuba hijacking
1968 – The first Arab-Israeli hijacking
1970 – PFLP gunmen attempt to hijack four aircraft simultaneously
1976 – The Palestinian hijack of an Air France airliner is brought to an end at Entebbe Airport, Uganda by Operation Entebbe
1985 – Palestinians take a EgyptAir plane and fly it to Malta. 59 people die when Egyptian commandos storm the aircraft
2001 – September 11 Terrorist Attack, eastern USA: 19 terrorists hijack four planes; in three cases the aircraft is used as a cruise missile in a suicide bombing of a building; they are the three most deadly of all aircraft hijackings; in one case the intention is the same but ‘only’ the people in the plane are killed. Together ca. 3000 people are killed.
1977 – A Palestinian hijack of a Lufthansa airliner in Mogadishu is ended when German commandos storm the plane
1978 – Two Arab guerrillas seized a plane in Cyprus. Egyptian commandos flew in uninvited to try to take the plane. Cypriot troops resisted and 15 Egyptians died in a 45-minute battle.
In Malta we had our share of hijacking operations, and the first one goes back to 1973 when a KLM Jumbo landed at Luqa and Mr Dom Mintoff succeeded to negotiate the release of all passengers as an exchange of refuelling of the plane.
Then we had the Libyan Fokker plane which a relative of Gaddafi forced it to land at Luqa. After 4 days of negotiations the passengers were released and the hijackers, two of them, gave themselves up to Maltese Security forces.
Then we had the famous EgyptAir disaster.
Apart from these we had another number of hijacked aircraft flying through our airspace and thus in a way Malta was involved both diplomatically and operationally. The most famous of them was the TWA which flew over the Mediterranean East-West and West-East twice.
Apart from the first hijack operation of the KLM, I had first hand involvement in all other operations as one of the technical advisors to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet during the said operations
Boeing 747 KLM Hijack – 25 November 1973
On 25 November 1973 a hijacked KLM Jumbo Jet arrived in Malta and intensive negotiations were launched by then Prime Minister Dom Mintoff for the release of the passengers. The episode had a happy ending when Mr Mintoff persuaded the three hijackers to release 247 passengers and eight air hostesses in return for fuel.
The Boeing 747 had been flying from Amsterdam to Tokyo with a stop in Beirut. It was hijacked over Iraq early in the morning and landed in Malta without permission after it was refused landing permission elsewhere.
That was the first time that a Boeing 747 – the biggest commercial jetliner of the time – had landed in Malta, which at the time had a small runway thought to be unsuitable for such large aircraft.
The giant aircraft was parked a few hundred metres from the terminal building, drawing many aviation enthusiasts to the airport.
After protracted negotiations Mr Mintoff agreed to give the hijackers half of the fuel they had requested once they released half of the passengers on board. Once that fuel was pumped on board, the hijackers released the remaining passengers and the remaining fuel was given to them.
The hijackers also asked for an Egyptian consul to replace the passengers as a hostage, but the KLM senior vice president for operations, A.W. Witholt, offered himself as hostage and was allowed on the aircraft.
The passengers, mostly Japanese, were released during the night between November 25-26 – coming down chutes from the plane. They were taken to the Verdala Hotel to rest and recover from their ordeal.
Mr Mintoff was later praised for the tough way he had negotiated with the hijackers. At one time, after the hijackers had agreed to release the passengers, he also requested the release of the air hostesses. He was heard on the radio telling the hijackers that the hostesses were only of use to them to make tea. He also told them that he had spoken to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who told him they did not represent anyone and were just young people acting on their own.
“You have no friends, and I am your only friend at the moment. I am trying to help you out but now I am determined to help you only as much as you help me,” Mr Mintoff was heard to say on two-way radios.
At this juncture, an interpreter told Mr Mintoff that he would not repeat certain words he had told the hijackers because he feared the gunmen would get furious. The gunmen did get furious when Col Gaddafi was mentioned. They said the Libyans had treated them badly “not like you.”
Eventually the hijackers relented, telling Mr Mintoff that in view of his invaluable help, they were overlooking everything, including their instructions not to release the hostesses, and they were also allowed to disembark.
Mr Mintoff then demanded to be told where the hijackers intended to go. They refused, but eventually agreed to tell him in confidence and he told them he would see to it that they reached their destination safely.
The aircraft left Malta early on 26 November 1973.
Aircraft Accident Description
Date: 25 Nov 1973
Type: Boeing 747-206B
Operator: KLM Royal Dutch Airlines
Previous Registration: N531AW
C/N: 19922/96 “Mississippi”
Year built: 1970
Total: 0 fatalities / 0 on board
Location: Luqa Airport (Malta)
Nature: International Scheduled Passenger
Flight: route:- Amsterdam – Beirut – Tokyo. The B747 was hijacked over Iraq and finally it made an emergency landing on rwy 24, at Luqa Airport.
5A-DDU Fokker F-27-600 LAA hijack to Malta 15 October 1979
Taken from http://www.flightlinemalta.com
Domestic flight with 44 passengers on board, bound from Tripoli and was parked at Park 4 however the hijackers surrendered after a few hours.
Aircraft Accident Brief Description
Type: Fokker F-27-600 Friendship
Operator: Libyan Arab Airlines
Passengers: 0 fatalities / 44 on board
Location: Luqa Airport (Malta)
Phase: Ground Nature
Nature: Scheduled Passenger
Flight: Tripoli – Malta
Remarks:- LAA Fokker 27 was hijacked to Malta, originally a domestic flight with 44 passengers on board. Landed Luqa bound from Tripoli and was parked at Park 4 however the hijackers surrendered after a few hours. Currently dumped [Written-off] at Tripoli (TIP / HLLT) Libya.
B727 Libyan Arab Airlines Hijack – 20 February 1983
Taken from http://www.flightlinemalta.com
Till today there are still conflicting reports on the circumstances which led the pilot to land the B727 on Sunday 20th February 1983 at about 21:15PM. The first concerns the plane’s movements prior to its arrival. Some reports said that it was hijacked while on an internal flight between Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and Sebha. Others suggest that the plane was on its way to Tripoli, possibly from Tunis.
Reports stated that an unidentified aircraft was located on radar within the Maltese airspace. Although this was not an unusual happening the authorities decided to take precautionary security measures.
The plane certainly spent some time orbiting over Luqa airport while the pilot sought permission to land and load with fuel condition that would only be available in return for the release of the passengers, was made right from the start. There are reports that all the airport lights were doused before the aircraft landed. Others indicate that they were switched off as soon as it touched down runway 24, vacated the runway and stopped on taxiway ”Lima”. The airport was certainly in total darkness on that Sunday night, except for two bright lights atop tall pylons at the park itself.
Capt. Abdullah Shekhi, the 30 year old pilot, of Tripoli stated that the aircraft was flying at 29,000ft from Sebha to Benghazi on an internal flight, a run which normally took 1hr 30 minutes, when just 30 minutes flying time from the destination, two men walked into the cockpit each carrying a gun and one of them also brandishing a hand bomb. One of the men, described by the Captain as very ‘nice and friendly looking’, told the flight crew to divert the aircraft to Khartoum in Sudan, or Morocco. The Captain insisted that the aircraft did not have enough fuel autonomy to go to any of those two destinations adding that the only place they could reach outside Libya was only Malta.
On arriving in Malta, Flight ‘LN484’ requested clearance to land. The Control Tower at Luqa Airport told the Captain that permission would be granted only on conditions that all hostages would have to be released. The Captain said he then replied that he could not give such an assurance as he was acting on the instructions of the hijackers.
Permission was eventually granted and the B727 landed on runway 24 which was ‘normally lit’ the captain said. The aircraft’s flight crew, also composed of First Officer Ahmed Aduzeid, Flight Engineer Mohammed Ei Magirhi, and Chief Cabin Officer Ismael Yusef, said that both hijackers treated the crew and the passengers well. On asking whether the hijackers were nervous Capt. Shekhi answered that the first night was very bad and at first the hijackers looked very nervous and therefore the crew had to deal with them gently and very calmly.
Members of the crew addressed the passengers frequently and also ensured that the women and children were seated as near as possible to the doors for ventilation since the air-conditioning system was not functioning regularly because of the fuel shortage. During the interview he also remarked that the fuel tanks were virtually empty.
The flight engineer El Magirhi said that when the hijackers were leaving the aircraft and surrendered their weapons one of the two men with a smile declared “here you have two pistols and one hand bomb. The hand bomb is not real”.
The landing gave birth to one of the most massive security operations ever seen at Luqa Airport. Men from the Task Force were deployed on both sides of the runway, weathering a cold night in the open. Detachments of Police were just about everywhere – police stations were closed and men brought back from off duty, others retained after their beat had ended. They were on the airfield close to the plane, in airport buildings, in buses waiting to rush everywhere.
By dawn they had sealed the airport allowing no one in the airport balcony, half a mile away from Park 4, the roads surrounding the airfield especially Hal-Farrug. With them were airport fire tenders, supplemented by the Corradino Section of the Fire Brigade, ambulances and a team of specialists gathered together to deal with emergencies.
The park entrances and exits, the perimeter tracks, even part of the runway 24-06, were blocked with police buses, trucks and equipment. These precautions were not in vain. The Boeing 727 was seen moving slowly at about 02:00AM on Monday 21st but stopped after a short distance, following a warning from the Control Tower that its paths to take off were obstructed. With the approach of dawn, it became apparent why the pilot so readily took the advice. For everywhere in the plane’s immediate vicinity was covered with cars, trucks, buses and fire tenders.
In daylong negotiations between the B727, parked in the middle of the airfield on taxiway “Lima”, the Maltese Government made one demand – the release of the 161 men, women and children on board.
The hijackers, said to be three armed men, in turn demanded that their plane be refueled and to be allowed to proceed to Morocco. A climax was reached in the afternoon when the Prime Minister Mr. Dom Mintoff himself took personal charge of the negotiations. The shuttle of messages between plane and Control Tower was in Arabic, with a translation for Mr. Mintoff who did not speak the language. That particular climax began when the Libyan pilot reported to the control tower that the batteries of his aircraft were running low and because of that there was a danger that communications would come to a sudden end. The pilot, no doubt speaking for the hijackers, also requested that the Foreign Minister Dr. A Sciberras Trigona approach the plane with a megaphone for discussions.
Mr. Mintoff volunteered the task himself, he did something similar 10 years before this drama, when he successfully intervened for the release of 256 passengers aboard a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines plane hijacked to Malta by Palestinians. Mr. Mintoff conducted his negotiations from the airport Control Tower. It was understood that in the course of the negotiations contacts were established with the Moroccan Embassy in Rome. The hijackers continuously demanded fuel while Mr. Mintoff insisted that first the passengers should be released, during negotiations over the radio that took more then 2 hours. Mr. Mintoff’s conversation with the hijackers started at 13:07PM asking for the identity of the hijackers and the Captain said they were Libyan nationals. On asking whether the hijackers were certain of being given refuge or not if they wanted to fly to another country Mr. Mintoff was informed by the Captain that the hijackers had declared they did not need to stay in Malta but they only wanted fuel.
Prime Minister: “Listen we have few passengers from Egypt and from London, and we want to know the identity of the hijackers so that we can know exactly what to do”.
Captain: “Ok stand by…”
Captain: “Libyans… the hijackers are Libyans!”
Prime Minister: “I know that they are Libyans, what I want to know if there is a proof so that if they want to be taken somewhere else, they are certain of their discretion or not”.
Prime Minister: “Okey? …go ahead”.
Captain: “Okey… the hijackers …the hijacker says e… they don’t need to stay in Malta they only need fuel from Malta and they would like to go”.
Prime Minister: “My job is to save your lives and those of the passengers, so they don’t make conditions to me, first I want to know with whom I am dealing”
Captain: “Say again please”
Prime Minister: “My job is to save your lives, this is Dom Mintoff speaking! I want to save your lives!”
Captain: “I can’t eee… understand you, would you speak slowly please… would you speak slowly…”
Prime Minister: “My job is to save your lives, this is Dom Mintoff speaking! If you want me to save your lives you must do what I say and not what you say”.
Prime Minister: “I cannot give them fuel if I do not know who they are and where they are going”.
Captain: “If you promise to give them fuel they will tell who they are and where they are going”.
Dom Mintoff: “I want to know with whom I am speaking before I give any promises”.
Captain: “There are children and women among the passengers on board. For the sake of their safety please we request fuel as the hijackers are requesting. Please be helpful for the sake of everybody”.
Tower: “If you do not identify the hijackers and tell us where you want to go we cannot help you”.
Captain: ”The hijacker wants to know what is the reason for this”.
Prime Minister: “We want to speak to the hijackers if they speak English or even if they speak Arabic. We want to speak directly to the leader of the hijackers”.
Captain: “He will speak to you in Arabic, he is the leader of the hijackers”.
Prime Minister Mr. Dom Mintoff told the hijacker through the interpreter that previous hijackings in Malta ended peacefully and wanted to know if the hijackers had anyone in Morocco who would help them then they should go there. ”If no one could help him there, he (the hijacker) would be maltreating the women, children, pilots and himself and if it is so then he is a madman and therefore I cannot possible help him”.
As the morning dragged on, negotiations virtually stopped. By this time it was learned that the only thing the hijackers were asking was fuel for the aircraft. They still refused to identify themselves or an organization they may belong to, and one of the hijackers said that they would fire shots in the air to show that they are armed and that unless they were given fuel for their aircraft, they would blow it up! It was being realized that the situation was becoming dangerous.
The Prime Minister also invited the hijacker or one of his men, to go to the Control Tower so that the Moroccan Embassy in Rome could be contacted after releasing the women and children. Mr. Mintoff said that he was prepared to give fuel to the hijackers if Morocco was prepared to help them. Mr. Mintoff: ”We have contacted the Moroccan Embassy in Rome and they say they know nothing about the hijackers but if the hijackers want to come to the Tower they may do so. To come to the Tower, he must first release the children”. The Prime Minister continued: ”Only I can save him, only I. But first he must show that he is a serious reasonable and sensible man. He shall first release the children as a proof”. The Prime Minister then asked how many children were on board. The captain answered that 30 per cent of the passengers on board were children. At 14:23PM the Capt. informed the Control Tower that he had only 500 kg of fuel left which was not enough to operate the Air Power Unit (APU), the air conditioners and the communications systems for very long. The conversation stopped at about 15:00PM and then at 15:09PM the Capt. contacted the Tower again but the interpreter was not available and the Capt. was asked to call later. At 15:47PM the Capt. informed the Tower that the APU had to be switched off as there was not enough fuel. The Capt. told the Tower that any messages could be relayed to the aircraft though a police car which was nearby.
At 17:13PM, the Capt. asked the Luqa Control Tower to ensure that the military would not open fire “for the safety of the aircraft” adding that “the hijackers are fully armed”. “Please be sure that there will be no attempt to shoot or storm the aircraft”, the Control Tower replied. About 24 minutes later the Capt. relayed a message by the hijackers to the Prim Minister: “The 161 passengers on board, all of different ages, 30 of them children, are suffering from hunger, thirst and are tired. You will be blamed and held fully responsible infront of the whole world of what will happen to the aircraft and the passengers, something which never happened before, if you do not give us fuel in a period of one hour from now”. “LN 484 your message has been received. The Prime Minister put his position clear, full responsibility is with the hijackers. We have nothing else. Position is still the same from Malta side”, the Control Tower told to the LAA flight.
At one stage the hijackers threatened to blow the plane up. This came after they had seen soldiers nearer to the aircraft. The Captain told the Control Tower, ”The soldiers are getting too near. If they get closer the hijackers say they will blow up the plane”. The hijackers were called by the Control Tower 11:50AM. They were told that the Prime Minister was at the Tower but refused to speak directly to them until they apologized for what they had said the previous day that the Maltese authorities had promised them fuel. The Tower spokesman also told the hijackers that the authorities had a message from the Moroccan Government but this would not be relayed until the women and children were released.
The aircraft flight engineer, also speaking for the hijackers said that what had happened on Sunday was that the aircraft had to land to Malta due to flight conditions. The aircraft had not had enough fuel to go anywhere except Malta. He added that ”even if this was a lie” the landing was made in Malta for the sake of everybody on board. The engineer added that if the aircraft was refueled and allowed to leave all passengers and the aircraft would be released in Morocco.
The Control Tower said that the apology had been accepted and the Captain was then asked to get one of the hijackers on the radio for direct contact in Arabic.
Negotiations for the release of the stewardess went into quite some detail because the hijackers were making various conditions relating for instance to the pulling back of security forces from the vicinity of the aircraft. The Prime Minister told the hijackers to release the Maltese girl to allow her to fetch fresh water for the children. If the children were released, the hijacker would be supplied with all the food they needed. Mr. Mintoff’s words were being translated to the hijackers by the Maltese girl. The hijackers kept repeating their demand to be allowed to speak to a Moroccan official but Mr. Mintoff made it clear to them that the Moroccan would not talk to them unless they released the hostages.
Mr. Mintoff appealed to the hijackers to trust him. All hijackings in Malta, ended peacefully and that he would guarantee their safety. To lay trust in him was their only chance, the airport had been blocked for safety of the passengers and the aircraft. He had been told that Moroccans were ready for the hijackers and he did not know what could happen as the aircraft approached Morocco. The hijackers thanked the Prime Minister for the information. They asked him to find them a country which would accept them. If they released the passengers, Mr. Mintoff replied he would, do all he could to find them a host country but there was not one which was read to accept them as long as they had the passengers on board. The hijackers next asked for the intervention of the American Ambassador (Mr. James Malone Rentschier) If they released the passenger they were told the Ambassador would be contacted. Mr. Mintoff insisted that the hijackers end their ‘brutal’ treatment of the children who were now hungry and thirsty.
At out 16:00PM the released stewardess spoke over the radio. She spoke in English – the conversation so far had been a mixture of Maltese, English and Arabic, the latter predominating. She said that the Prime Minister had been in contact with the American Embassy but the Americans did not want to have anything to do with the matter so long as the hijackers still kept the passengers hostage.
At one time there seemed to be difficulty in maintaining communication with the aircraft. A soldier approached the aircraft cupped his hands to his mouth and told the cockpit that the tower had a message to pass on. The difficulty later seemed to have been eliminated.
Another tense episode in the drama was recorded just after 22:30PM on Tuesday night when the floodlights illuminating the Boeing 727 sitting silently on taxiway “Lima” near Park 4 were switched off. The Control Tower informed the Captain that the lights were switched off for their own protection and that there was no cause for the alarm. Some minutes later the lights in the area were all switched off except for the floodlight illuminating the two nearby parks. Military and Police vehicles patrolling the airport perimeter were seen only using the side lamps and later on no lights at all were used. At 23:09PM the interior lights on board the B727, including the cockpit, were also switched off and every now and then two small lights, possibly coming from torchlights were seen inside the aircraft cabin.
During the day the jet’s generator could be heared. One of the cockpit windows was open all the time and one of the aircraft’s doors was at times opened to let fresh air into the interior.
Throughout the 65 hours of negotiations there were moments of suspense especially whenever the hijackers angrily threatened to blow up the aircraft when no development was not registered.
Reason for Hijack
In a message released on Wednesday 23rd at 01:30AM, the hijackers stated that they did not belong to any extremist or terrorist organization and that they had never taken part in any political activity in or outside Libya. They hijacked the plane not because they liked to shed blood or liked to inflict harm on innocent people but in order to find a country of their choice which would give them political asylum. The hijackers promised to release the aircraft, the crew and the passengers on condition that “at least we are given an official promise for our protection”.
In replying to the hijackers message Mr. Mintoff said that he already verbally promised the two Libyans the willingness and determination of the Maltese Government to give them all the possible protection that a small and poor nation could offer. The hijackers replied that there was no need for them to see the Maltese Government’s promise in writing.
Prime Minister: ”If you want another proof of this I am ready to give this official and final promise in writing to one of you alone expressing my wish that together with him all the women and children are released.
“This hijacker will meet me here at the Control Tower and I will send him back to the aircraft to show this promise to his colleague. Following this, the two hijackers will leave the aircraft together with the crew and we will welcome them as guests in our country”.
There was little activity elsewhere. The airport was closed to all traffic during the night and scheduled flights, including another Libyan Arab Airlines flight were diverted to Rome. A Swissair DC-9 HB-IDO pilot training had to be cancelled due to the hijacked B727.
But shortly after 08:00AM on Monday 21st, an Air Malta B737 from London being the first to come in followed by the return Air Malta flight from Rome, and others such as a British Airways B737 G-BGDI brought foreign journalists, Alitalia DC-9 I-DIKV brought camera crew and reporters.
Luqa airport was fully operational on Tuesday 22nd, with no flights known to have cancelled.
The many people watching the hijacked plane from outside the airport – and powerful binoculars were treasured and useful possessions – saw hope just before 08:30AM when two Enemalta bowsers, one towing a trailer, were seen approaching the aircraft. They stopped about 200 yards away, stayed for 20 minutes, then returned whence they had come.
Maltese Among Hostages on Hijacked Libyan Plane
One female crew member of the hijacked Libyan Boeing was released on that Tuesday 22nd, and another was discovered to be Maltese.
These were two events which heightened both expectations and anxiety, one for the hope that a breakthrough had been made, the other because all Malta could now identify itself even more with the hostages as it was learned there was a fellow Maltese onboard.
The freed woman, reported to be Yugoslav, was released at 14:30PM, some 42 hours after the plane had landed at Luqa, and some three hours after Prime Minister Mr. Mintoff’s arrival at the airport Control Tower. It was not ascertained why the stewardess was released.
The stewardess saw freedom after being lowered by rope from the emergency door. She walked some distance away from the aircraft when she met a security officer and they talked for a short time. The officer walked away possibly for consultations, then returned accompanied by another and they drove her away to the Control Tower in an Alfa Romeo car.
Talks over the radio started on Tuesday 22nd at about 21:15PM. They started by the hijackers asking if there were any developments about their request for fuel to fly to Morocco. They were invited to go to the airport Control Tower to discuss the matter.
The hijackers gave the following information: There were in all 160 persons on board, including the crew. Of these 123 are men, 18 women and 11 children. Five of the passengers were sick, three women were pregnant and there were four old and physically handicapped persons. The hijackers, who have said they are Libyans, were then asked about the passengers physical condition, and the soon replied: “The children, they are in poor shape and we cannot help them in any way. We can only help by throwing dead bodies out of the plane from the windows to show that you have done many things wrong for all the world. You should send one uncovered car with one driver to take any dead bodies away when you see it”.
The identity of the hijackers was not established, neither was that of the passengers. By the afternoon, the British High Commission said that it had been informed by the Foreign Ministry that no English nationals were on board, and the American Embassy also said that there were no American nationals as majority of the passengers were Libyan.
What surprised many during the days was that no vans or other vehicles carrying food were seen approaching the aircraft. Later it transpired that the hijackers had asked for some medicines and food. The authorities requested that one of the hijackers should leave the plane to collect them, however the hijackers refused.
The last message to be transmitted by the hijackers on Monday evening came 19:30PM. One of the hijacker asked the Control Tower whether there were any developments. The control tower replies negative. The hijacker then wished the Control Tower personnel good night and received a simlar reply. No other message was sent up to 23:30PM.
In the afternoon the hijackers dictated a letter to the control tower. In it they said, among other things, that they were against the political system in Libya and would rather die then go there. The hijackers seemed to be in control of themselves, speaking in a calm, determined voice. They insisted death was not something they were afraid of, and at one time even helped with the spelling of a word Arabic.
The exchanges always ended politely, with a ”thank you” or ”peace with you” for instance. At about 19:00PM, the Prime Minister’s secretary came over the radio giving Mr. Mintoff’s answer to a previous communication.
A “Miss Stivala” was mentioned, and it is thought this referred to the Maltese air hostess on board. The name cropped up in reference to Mr. Mintoff’s suggestion that “Miss Stivala, whom they trusted”, be allowed to carry water for children on board.
It appeared late in the afternoon that talks between the hijackers and the negotiators at the Luqa Tower took a more positive note. Both sides seemed to show more confidence in each other and it seemed that the hijackers were even prepared to change their position as regards the Maltese hostess, reported to be Miss Maryanne Stivala of Iklin. They said they were prepared to release the girl if certain conditions were accepted.
The hijackers said they did not want to be referred to as terrorists and wanted to make public that they did not see eye to eye with the Libyan authorities. They also wished some foreign embassies in Malta, naming the U.S. and the German Embassy, to intervene on their behalf and offer some form of security.
While these messages were being relayed the Control Tower was in direct contact with these embassies. In fact a message which was sent by the Foreign Affairs Minister to the US Embassy was read out to the hijackers to prove their requests were being seen to.
At on time the hijackers said that they were not afraid of what was happening here but what could happen after.
The hijackers decision to release the passengers was announced in a message by the two Libyans to the Prime Minister on Wednesday 23rd.
“We are pleased to inform you in front of the whole world – which is Malta – that will be releasing the aircraft, the passengers and its crew and will be committing ourselves in the hands of Mr. Dom Mintoff and the friendly people of Malta. This will take place under the condition that you promise us protection and that you will not send us back to the country where we not want to go. We have high hopes that your efforts with us will continue until the end”.
In the same message the hijackers expressed their “full confidence in Mr. Mintoff and the free people of Malta”. They added that Malta had opened its doors for them in front of the whole world although the Island’s Government was put under great pressure not to give any help to them”.
They added that they appreciated and understood Malta’s wish not to divulge the names of the Embassies which were prepared to help so that the problem could be solved.
Hijackers surrender, passengers released!
The three-day hijack drama of the Libyan Arab Airlines Boeing 727 ended abruptly but peacefully early afternoon Wednesday 23rd February 1983 to the relief of all. The two Libyan arm officers, who hijacked the airline on Sunday 20th took Prime Minister Mintoff word that he will do his utmost to help them out in finding a host country. As Mr. Mintoff spoke to the Libyan hijackers at the Control Tower in Luqa soon after the release of the passengers at 13:40PM, the 160 hostages tired but happy at the outcome ate biscuits and drank milk and coffee in a former Royal Air Force sick bay at Luqa, which the Medical Health Department had turned into a reception centre-cum-hospital.
All the passengers who included children, women, and elderly were examined by doctors and paramedical personnel from St. Luke’s Hospital and were found to be in good condition, except for several cases of dehydration. Among the passengers on board the hijacked plane were two young Libyan men who were being flown from Sebha to the Benghazi prison under escort by three Libyan uniformed soldiers.
The release of the hostages came suddenly and unexpectedly. Until only few minutes before, negotiations were still going on between the hijackers and Mr. Mintoff acting through his private secretary / interpreter Mr. Martin Zammit.
Radio contact between the Tower and the aircraft started just before12 noon when Mr. Zammit informed the hijacker that negotiations were being resumed by the Prime Minister. Communications had been suspended for several hours.
Mr. Zammit: “I have a message from the Prime Minister and the Socialist Government. Malta welcomes you and will not send you back to Libya and will help you find a host country for you, if you release the passengers”.
Following further contacts, Mr. Zammit informed the hijackers that water and milk were being supplied without any conditions. Then negotiations on contacts with Embassies were resumed. At 13:15PM Mr. Dom Mintoff told the hijackers that he wished the whole thing would end peacefully and that the humble people of Malta were prepared to give the hijackers all they needed once they released the passengers. The Control Tower then invited the hijackers to suggest how they (the hijackers) could go to the Tower for talks. The Tower also told the hijackers that if they released the children and women they (the hijackers) could go to the Tower armed or unarmed. The hijackers asked whether they should leave the aircraft after they released the children or women or whether this should leave the plane by themselves. The Tower told the hijackers that if they had any suggestions these would be accepted.
The Hijackers: “We are prepared to proceed according to Mr. Mintoff’s wish”.
The Tower: “Women and children should disembark first followed by yourselves (to the hijackers) and then the male passengers”.
The Hijackers asked whether they should carry weapons or not. The Tower said the hijackers should preferably be unarmed. The Hijackers were also told by the Tower that the Police Commissioner Dr. Lawrence Pullicino, would be meeting them near the aircraft to escort them to the Tower where they would meet Mr. Mintoff. The hijackers “Give us some time to explain this to passengers”. At 13:45PM the aircraft first class cabin door on the starboard side was opened as a staircase was placed in position and three airport buses approached the aircraft. Five ambulances were also standing by and Police vehicles were also driven near the Boeing 727. As had been agreed before, the first to come down from the plane were the 18 women and 11 children, some of them carried by their mothers. At least one woman and a child were helped down the stairway by airport personnel and policemen. The women and children boarded an airport bus and were driven straight to the Luqa sick bay. All the passengers were being accommodated at the Airport Hotel, in Luqa.
Next to leave the aircraft were the two air pirates First Lieutenants in the Libyan Army, named as Al-Tawati Mansur Al-Mahdi and Abdessalam Abu Kijla. Just before leaving they handed their weapons, two pistols and a ‘handbomb’, to a member of the cockpit crew. The two men were put in a police van and taken to the Control Tower. Last to disembark were the men, including many youths, and the members of the crew, three air hostesses and four men. The B727 had been the centre of attraction for 65 hours since Sunday 20th February 21:15PM.
The children were immediately put in cots and given milk and biscuits while the other passengers were offered beds and hot drinks. Three pregnant women were examined along with many others. The medical service at the sick bay was under the direct supervision of the Health Minister Dr. Vincent Moran, who was assisted by Mrs. Maggie Moran. Also at the sick bay was the Minister of the Interior Mr. Lorry Sant, who together with Dr. Moran had spent several hours at the Control Tower during negotiations, and the Italian Ambassador Dr. Maurizio Battaglini. Dr. Battaglni called at the sick bay to meet Ing. Giuseppe Gandolfi an official of the Italian company Siai Marchetti Spa., who was among the hostages.
The two Libyan prisoners who were on board were also taken to the sick bay and examined by Dr. Joseph Grech Attard Superintendent of St. Luke’s Hospital. The three military escorts were also examined. The prisoners, accompanied by the Libyan soldiers escorting them, were then taken to the Task Force Headquaters, at Luqa, in a Police van. They were being kept there until arrangements were made for their transfer to the Benghazi prison.
Aircraft cleaned up
At about 03:30AM the B727 was towed from the taxiway “Lima” near runway 24, where it had been sitting since Sunday night, to near the passenger terminal (Park 8) where it was cleaned up and prepared to make the return flight to the Tripoli (Libyan Capital).
Security forces examined the plane, before boarding the aircraft all the passengers were asked to identify their luggage as a security precaution.
Hijacked Libyan Boeing Returns Home with Passengers
The Libyan national carrier operated four weekly flights to Malta. The Chairman of the Libyan Arab Airlines, Capt. Hanushi Mohdissa, arrived in Malta with a biz-jet type Dassault Falcon (Mystere) 20C registration 5A-DCO, early morning on Thursday 24th to supervise the arrangements to send the hijacked aircraft and passengers back home. He was accompanied by Mr. Mohammed Isa. Sales Manager, who until a few months ago was LAA’s manager for Malta.
Later that day, Capt. Abdullah Shekhi who was in command of the aircraft when it was hijacked, manoeuvred the plane out of Park 8 to the runway and at 12:41PM the B727 took-off.
The Arab passengers were transferred from the Country Hotel (the former Airport Hotel), at Luqa to the Departure Terminal. An ambulance also arrived carring one male passenger who needed treatment St. Luke’s Hospital. The passenger was transferred from the ambulance into the aircraft. All the members of the crew who were on the aircraft during the hijacking, flew back to Tripoli, also as crew members. The only missing was air hostess Miss Maryanne Stivala who remained in Malta for her rest period. Arab passengers who spent almost three days in a hijacked Boeing 727 waved goodbye to Maltese bystanders at the Luqa airport balcony as they were driven away in airport buses to catch the same aircraft back home.
The Libyan Arab Airlines B727 carrying the registration 5A-DII, hit the headlines worldwide during those days as negotiations continued between Prime Minister Mr. Dom Mintoff and the two Libyan hijackers over the 161 passengers release which came unexpectedly early on Wednesday 23rd afternoon.
The two hijackers, both First Lieutenants in the Libyan Army decided to surrender and commit themselves “in the hands of Mr. Dom Mintoff, and the friendly people of Malta”.
Maltese hostess unafraid
Miss Maryanne Stivala, 23 of Iklin, the Maltese hostess aboard the aircraft, said her main preoccupation was due to the fact that the two hijackers did not want to budge from their position. Miss Stivala took part directly during the negotiations between the hijackers and Prime Minister. Miss Stivala who has only been working for Libyan Arab Airlines for one year, said that Mr. Mintoff was right in not giving in to the hijackers’ demand for fuel to enable them to fly on to Morocco. “I was never afraid of the hijackers. They frequently spoke to the children and to the other passengers”, she said.
Miss Stivala was referred to Tuesday conversation between Mr. Mintoff and the hijackers through her when she was instructed by the Prime Minister not to answer his questions before passing them on to the hijackers.
She said that she was translating into English to the Captain what the Prime Minister was telling her in Maltese. The Captain in turn translated in Arabic to the hijackers and vice-versa. “You can imagine how nervous I was during those moments”. She added that at times she could not help giving a direct answer to the Prime Minister before actually referring first to the hijackers.
With Miss Stivala, as hostesses, were two Yugoslav girls, Miss Ribakov Ferihana (the hostess who was released on Tuesday 22nd) and Miss Budjinski Svetkana, and Miss Afroditi Petropoulov from Greece, Miss Petropoulov looked very worried and tired and refused to speak on her ordeal with reporters.
Hijackers in police custody sought political asylum
Although the passengers of the hijacked Libyan plane departed to Tripoli – minus the Maltese air hostess who stayed behind for a rest after the ordeal – the incident was far from closed. The two hijackers, First Lieutenants At-Tawati Mansur Al-Mahdi and Abdessalam Abu Kijla, were still in Police custody. The two officers, in the course of their radio conversations prior to the end of the saga at the airport, said they wanted to seek political asylum either in Morocco or in Sudan.
At that period, Libyan relations with Morocco were bad. With regard to Sudan, the Sudanese recently reported that Libya was massing troops, armour and aircraft on their common frontier.
The two hijackers also said that they would rather die than go back to Libya. Just before the hijack saga ended, the hijackers said they were surrendering themselves into the hands of Mr. Mintoff “on condition that you give us your word to protect us and will not surrender us to any country where we would not like to go”. The hijackers, in another message, said they wanted to confirm to Mr. Mintoff and to all the world “that we do not belong to any extremist or terrorist organization. We also confirm that we have never taken part in any political activity on or out of Libya”.
It was reported on Wednesday that as message was sent to Agence France Presse office in Cairo by the Front for the Liberation of Libya. This group was headed by Mr. Abdel Hamed Bahkoush, who was Prime Minister during the reign of King Idris I. The King’s regime was overturned by the 1969 revolution led by Colonel Gaddafi.
According to the message, also relayed by an Italian news agency, the Front asked Mr. Mintoff to treat “the Libyan element” who took over the plane as member of the organization which, they claimed, represented the Libyan people.
It was reported also that the Front said that the episode should not be regarded as a hijacking but as “legal recovery” of its (the Libyan People’s) property.
It was not yet known whether Libya had asked for the extradition of the two hijackers. Calls for extradition were made in similar circumstances all over the world. The Prime Minister’s strenuous efforts to end the drama were principally and consistently directed at securing the release of the passengers, particularly after it began to be realized that the incident was becoming prolonged, and that supplies of water and food were running short.
Gaddafi thanks Mintoff for release of hijacked passengers
The Libyan Leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi thanked the Prime Minister Mr. Dom Mintoff for his successful efforts to secure the release of 161 passengers from the Libyan Arab Airlines Boeing 727 hijacked to Malta on that Sunday 20th February 1983. The hijackers two Libyan Army officers, gave themselves up on that Wednesday 23rd February in the afternoon.
In expressing his “utmost thanks”, Colonel Gaddafi spoke of the Prime Minister’s efforts to protect the lives of the passengers and the crew of the plane and also ”for the care and attention extended to them by you after its release”. Colonel Gaddafi also praised the ”wise policy and your patience in dealing with the matter which led to its conclusion in a satisfactory and humane manner”. Colonel Gaddafi wished the Prime Minister good health and success and progress and prosperity to the Maltese people.
The ”Masses of the Basic Popular Congresses in the Municipal of Sebha” also sent a message to the Prime Minister, thanking him for the successful effort which “saved the lives of our passengers” and adding that they would never forget “this stand of the friendly people of Malta”.
Egypt Air Flight 648 Hijack in Malta – 24 November 1985
by Maj Tony Abela
EgyptAir Flight 648, a Boeing 737-200 SU-AYH with 98 passengers and crew on board left Athens on its route to Cairo. After the plane have reported reaching cruising level and the Seat Belts signs were switched off, three well-dressed men stood up, got their guns out and ordered the passengers not to move. One of the three men proceeded to the cockpit and forced Captain Hani Galal to head the plane to Malta. This will take two or three issues to cover some very important points which I believe until now where not made public. It is important that some facts are made known as the general opinion both locally and international blames the local authorities for the fiasco result of the whole operation.
In my opinion this Hijack was a particular one not only because of the disastrous ending of the saga and the high toll of victims, but because it had some peculiar characteristics and events that some of them might have not been made public as yet. As I was directly involved in the overall operation as a technical advisor to the Prime Minister of the day, Dr Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici and his Cabinet I still memorise some vital and important issues that made this hijack a different and peculiar one from all other hijacks, both in Malta and abroad.
First of all, personally and possible other members of the Security Forces were expecting this hijack and we had the feeling that it will be a difficult operation. This is because, during the summer of the same year, members of the Security Forces and Civil Aviation participated in a crash course about ‘Crisis Management’ with special reference to Hijack Operations which was provided by the US Security Officials from the FBI and State Department, where we were given “between the lines” hints that before the end of the same year we will have to prove what we have learnt. On individual level I had informal conversations with some these officials that gave me enough reasons to believe that the US Intelligence knew more than something about the possibility of this hijack. Most of what was said I cannot mention due to professional ethics and security reasons, but to say the least, Greece was mentioned as the origination country for our next possible hijack operation. At that time most of what was said was slightly hard to believe, but after the EgyptAir hijack all things fell in place and therefore I strongly believe that the US Intelligence had some good and reliable informers.
What made this hijack a particular and more difficult operation?
First of all, on the first radio contact that the crew made with Malta ATCC, we were informed that there had already been a struggle onboard between the Hijackers and the EgyptAir Security people on the plane and possible there was at least one victim. This happened when the plane was within the Malta Flight Information region, and as such, a crime had already taken place on Maltese territory. This in itself had already placed the Malta Government in a very difficult situation and legally it was its responsibility to make Justice with the offenders. Therefore, in this case, the Malta Government could not have refused landing permit to the plane to pass the problems to other countries, but legally was obliged to give the landing facilities and do its best to have the offenders under its custody and make them go through the usual justice procedures under the Maltese Law. Usually, landing permits are not given for hijacked aircraft and all measures are taken to physically block the runways by heavy vehicles and also switch off all Navigational Aids so that the plane has no instrumental guidance for the approach and landing procedures. This is normally done until it is verified that if landing permit is still withheld the safety of the passengers and crew is jeopardise due to insufficient fuel to divert to another airport. One way to verify the fuel endurance is by direct contact with the airline representative to get information of the fuel load which was given to the plane before it took-off and the flying duration which had been expired by the time plane reached Malta.
Nevertheless, initially the aircraft was refused landing clearances, and after some time on the insistence of the aircraft captain, we removed the physical obstructions on the runway and allowed the plane to land at the discretion of the Captain in command of the plane.
So even before it landed the Malta Government had a ‘hot-potato’ in his hand, due to the very possibility that a crime has been committed in its territory.
Even before the plane landed, the Prime Minister, members of his Cabinet, the Egyptian and American Ambassadors and other Maltese and foreign diplomats were already at Luqa ATCC. Of course present also were the heads of the Maltese Security Forces of the Police and the Army.
From the beginning, we could sense from the radio conversations between the Captain and us, that the situation onboard the plane was very tense and something more serious than other hijacks we went through was in the air. On the first conversations with the Hijackers we also sensed that they were professional terrorists and they meant business, they were very aggressive in the way they communicated with us and sounded very determined. During the first Briefing meeting with the PM and the Cabinet members present, which I clearly remember present Mr Lorry Sant and Dr Alex Sciberras Trigona, who were the Ministers responsible for the Security Forces and Foreign Office respectively, I expressed my opinion that we have a hard nut to crack as all indications leads me to believe that it was a professional job by well trained terrorists.
Within the first half hour, the Maltese Authorities already had a good idea which organisation was behind the hijack and thus realised the gravity of the situation. Immediately it was decided that this hijack had to be resolved here and in no way fuel and departure clearance were to be given, mainly due to the fact of the possibility of the murder of person or persons which had already happened on Maltese Territory. Thus, the Malta Government started the negotiations with a handicap.
It did not take much time until the Malta Government decided to give permit to the Egyptian Rescue Forces to make their way to Malta to discuss and prepare for a Rescue Operation, just in case matters started to get out of control.
The Egyptian Rescue Forces were known as the Egypt’s Task Force 777 which was set up in 1977 and had their ‘baptism of fire’ in the Libyan desert without any experience and little organization. In 1978 they were dispatched to assault an airplane hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and flown to Cyprus. They had no time to make a proper plan and they had to plan their mission on the one-hour trip time from Egypt to Cyprus. To make things worst the Egyptian Authorities failed to inform the Cyprus authorities of their imminent arrival, and all appeared that they were intending to make an ‘Entebbe’ style mission either to show off or to prove that they are as good as the Israeli’s Entebbe mission or the German mission at Mogadish in 1977. The result was that the Cyprus police and Security forces thought that they were a reinforcement terrorist and an 80-minute firefight took place between the Cyprus Security Forces and the TF777. This cost them the lives of 15 of its members. With this background the Maltese Authorities were very reluctant to give them permission for storming the plane but it was decided that it was better to be available at hand as it was clearly decided by the cabinet that we did not want any Maltese citizens fighting other peoples fights and were not ready to jeopardise the lives of our Security Forces personnel unless as a last resort.
With this in mind various discussions took place between the Prime Minister and his Cabinet members, the Egyptian and American Ambassadors, the TF777 Commander, the two US Army Generals who came with the Egyptian TF77 as their advisors. I was present in all discussions. On our side we did not mince our words and we made it obvious that we have our doubts about a Storming Mission for rescuing the hostages. The American Advisors insisted many times that they have had intensive training and at that time the FT777 were well prepared for such a mission. The Maltese authorities were playing for time to see how things would develop as they were still not convinced of the success of a storming mission.
In the meantime, things were getting more critical on the plane as even with all the negotiations which were taking place between the Senior Air Traffic Controller and the Terrorists, mainly to play for time as it was political decided that there will be no refuelling, the terrorists proceeded with their plans and were taking certain steps that puts the Maltese Government in a very awkward diplomatic position vis-à-vis the Governments of the different nationalities which were held hostages.
At first the runway was blocked, all Landing and Navigation Aids and Lights switched off and the whole of the Malta FIR was closed. As the Captain was insisting of the fuel shortage and more important the struggle that went on onboard and the possibility of victims and injured persons who needed urgent medical attention, the Maltese Authorities decided to remove the physical runway blockage and leave the Landing Aids and Runway Lights off until the very last moment if the Captain decides to make a landing attempt come what may as he had declared. I can remember him saying that “that way the Maltese Authorities will end with all the dead bodies of the persons onboard on the runway”. In fact, as we were monitoring the plane by radar and also visually as it had the landing lights on all the time it was circling around the island, at about 9pm we realised that the plane was on its approach path some 12 miles south of runway 32. As the plane kept approaching, on reaching 4 miles for landing we switched on all the runway lights but never communicated a ‘Clear to Land’ message. Thus the plane landed safely and as soon as it was on the ground we instructed the Captain to follow the ‘Follow Me’ vehicle which guided the plane to Park 4, the area which is allotted for such operations.
It was immediately realised that the aircraft was the same one which was forced to land at Sigonella by American Forces in connection with the ship’s Hijack earlier on the previous year.
Immediately the Captain was asking for a Medical Doctor to give first aid treatment to those who needed it on board. By the time the plane landed the Medical Health Department was alerted and at Luqa we had at least 4 ambulances, a number of Doctors and Nurses and of course the Health Minister who at that time was Dr Vincent Moran. St Luke’s Hospital took the usual steps for such events and cancelled all routine work and only accepted emergency cases, and prepared a special ward for any eventuality. By this time there were no additional requests except the insistence of a Medical Doctor, and they insisted that it had to be only ONE doctor and no more.
It is to be pointed out that during this Hijack we insisted that all conversations with the Captain and the Hijackers shall be done by the ATC Officials, in this case it was major Joe Sultana, Senior Air Traffic Controller, who during the course we had by the American State Department the summer before was trained as the Chief Negotiator on the Maltese side. On the previous hijack, that of the Libyan Air, the Prime Minister’s Personal Secretary was the main negotiator as he was also an fluent in Arabic and most of the communications with the Hijackers were then carried in the Arabic Language. The Hijackers demanded refuel to fly to Libya. This time all conversations were done in English. As time got on the Hijackers made one other request, that they wanted to speak to the Egyptian Ambassador in Malta. We told them that we cannot do this until we get Diplomatic clearances and this we cannot do as we cannot get hold of the relevant Maltese Authorities.
So the first few hours of the operation were mainly related to negotiate the provision of Medical Doctor and on our part we were insisting that unless they let all children and women onboard to disembark the medical assistance will not be provided. In the meantime, the PM and his Cabinet gave clearance to provide the Doctor with this proviso.
It must have been around midnight or just before when the Captain informed us that the Hijackers accepted to let the children and women off the plane as long as a Medical Doctor will make his way up the stairs at the same time they were coming down. Immediately the question was who was going to be the Doctor. Dr Vincent Moran insisted that he shall go, but this was immediately turned down because we argued that if they realise that he is a member of the Cabinet the chances will be that they will keep him as a main hostage. It took some time to convince him and I remember the Prime Minister, Dr Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici really getting crossed with him and had to give him a sort of direct order to forget it. Finally it was decided that a very young doctor who I believe was still on the first two years of government service as part of his warrant requisites was instructed to go. I don’t think that he volunteered. I still do not know his name to this day, but I remember he was thin, very young, about 22years old and almost pale with anxiety. He was briefed by us to be very cautious and tipped him to observe certain matters, such as the possibility of finding out the total number of Hijackers and their location on the plane, confirm their nationality and if possible take a friendly attitude with them to try to find out what are their aims. So it was all set and ready to go.
I think it must have been around 1am that the women and children started to walk down the stairways and the doctor ascending it. In fact they were 11 pasengers and two injured Cabin Crew female members. Immediately they were brought to the ATCC were they were first security screened and then were brought in to meet the Prime Minister, Cabinet members, the Commissioner of Police Dr Lawrence Pullicino, Mr Maurice Abela, Foreign Office Secretary and myself. I remember quite clearly that one pregnant woman, a Philippine, as there were a good number of the passengers who were Philippines, was in tears as she was saying that her husband was left behind on the plane. I tried to convince her that she does not have to worry as traditionally we ended all our hijacks with complete surrender of the hijackers and no victims. Later on I was proved very wrong.
What we found out from their account was that there were at least three hijackers and possible more. That they had already collected all passports and re-seated the passengers according to their nationalities. At the front they placed Americans, Jews, Germans, Egyptians and Philippines at the rear. This in itself increased our worries about political embarrassment with foreign Governments. They confirmed that there was some struggle and also shooting and at least two persons were injured, one of them looked as if he was already dead. In the meantime we gave them tea and coffee and as there was nothing else that they can tell us we arranged their transportation to a local hotel for them to rest. All this did not take more than 1 hour.
In the meantime the frightened Doctor carried his mission and returned to the ATCC. He could not find out much more than we had already knew as the Hijacker who was in contact with insisted to carry out his medical treatment as soon as possible and get off the plane immediately. He only confirmed that there was a Security officer severely injured but although he insisted that he needs hospitalisation the Hijacker refused and that there was a Hijacker who was shot in the arm and thus was treated. He also confirmed that the Captain had a head injury and was also treated accordingly, but nothing appeared serious that it was a life threatening. At about 3am the Hijackers threatened to start killing one person every 15 minutes if refuel is not given within an hour. By this time the Egyptian TF777 were on there way to Malta on board the military Hercules planes and the local forces were all prepared mainly watching the plane from short range. There were some Maltese Army snipers and the Police special unit at that time known as SMU, Special Military Unit, under the command of inspector Charles Cassar, ‘Kaspetina’. As soon as Inspector Cassar became aware of the likelihood of a storming operation he insisted that he and his men were prepared to do it and he was of the opinion that they can do it very successfully. Needless to say, it was very clear that he was over-enthusiastic to make a show out of it. He was immediately told that he shall forget it.
In the meantime the Captain informed us that the Hijackers are preparing for the first execution, to start with an Isreali, and others will follow every 15minutes until we refeul the plane or at least get a representative of the Egyptian Embassy to go to meet them on the plane. It must have been around 4am that we saw the aircraft front door getting opened, a person was standing facing out and a hooded hijacker had a pistol on the back of his neck. It only took few seconds and he or she was shot and thrown out of the plane, falling all the way to the tarmac as there were no stairs. The nearby security forces members who were watching at short range, less than 50 meter away hidden in the grass surrounding Park 4 told us that on impact he or she did not move. At that time we all thought that the person was dead. So the pressure was even more on us. Dr Lawrence Pullicino insisted that he shall be given clearance to have this man pulled out from beneath the plane as he might still be saved if treated immediately. Permission was not granted by the Cabinet as it was thought it was too risky at the time. To try to calm the Hijackers down and to make an assessment of the state of this body we offered them to give them some food, tea, coffee, water and milk. They killed Israelis first – there were two of them; the first hostage killed was a young Israeli woman, she was able to crawl to the tarmac using the stairway, 10 minutes later another Israeli woman is shot, along with an American. By this time it was about 6am.
The SMU members informed us that the injured persons on the tarmac were alive as they saw them moving their bodies slightly. So immediately it was decided to have them pulled out. Two SMU members crawled across Park 4 from behind the plane so that they were out of sight from anybody on board the plane. One by one they were dragged out and put on a stretcher with wheels and moved into the grass where an ambulance was waiting. At this area the ground slopes down by at least 15 feet, so the ambulance and all the operation was kept discreet. They were immediately given medical treatment at Luqa Emergency Medical centre which was specifically setup for this Hijack Operation and then transferred to St Luke’s Hospital. At that time I did not follow the case any more as things were still getting worst at the plane.
For a while there were no more victims thrown out of the plane and it was only around 10am that the door got opened again and another body was brought to the door, shot at the back and thrown down the stairway which was left there after the food consignment was supplied earlier on. This time it was an American lady by the name of Jackie Pflug who was a Special Education Teacher in Cairo at the American school. Again the SMU members somehow managed to drag her out. I believe she survived the head injury but was wheelchair bound for some time and now is living in Minneapolis, Minnesota who continues to face challenges with emotional, physical, and learning disabilities as the result of the head injuries. She was the last person to get shot and thrown out of the plane. Things were really hot by then and thus it was decided to give clearance for the ‘Storming Operation’. In the meantime the Egyptian Commandos were due to land at Luqa just after noon.
As I said before, it was more or less decided that a ‘Storming Operation’ has to take place unless the Hijackers surrender unexpectedly, was seemed highly unlikely. Thus the Egyptian TF777 were cleared to come and stay on standby for any eventualities. By the time the TF777 arrived just after noon we had already at least three victims thrown out of the plane. On the other hand we had found out from the two cabin crew members and female hostages who were released during the early hours of the day that the hijackers were implementing their execution plans in order of the nationalities of the hostages. This in itself put the Maltese Government in a very embarrassing situation vis-à-vis foreign governments. Some of them were already putting pressure politically with the Maltese Foreign Office to act very rapidly and at least one State wanted to intervene with his Special Rescue Squad. Therefore the Maltese Cabinet had to decide and act very quickly. So it was decided that the Hijack had to be terminated as soon as possible and surely during the same day, that is the second day of the hijack.
With this in mind the Prime Minister, Minister Lorry Sant and myself went to meet the Egyptian Commander and his American advisors at the Helicopter Flight, which is about 100 metres away from the ATCC. We wanted to know how they plan their operation. He explained that we shall provide an empty fuel bowser as if we were going to give them fuel, park it some 100 metres in front of the plane and ask them to release the hostages. They indicated that at the same time the Egyptian Commandos will be standing by under the aircraft body. Immediately we reacted to this plan as it appears very amateur and risky. I pointed out that if they fire at the bowser, this in itself is a bomb with all the gases enclosed in its tanks, that it will cause a disaster in itself. The Maltese side reactions were such that we did not have to tell them that we are not-confident in the whole group. The American advisors re-assured us that they know what they are doing and have proven themselves before. Unfortunately at that time we did not have the grace of the Internet to quickly find out all about this group, so we could not argue much against.
Then they asked permission for the entire group to visit an AirMalta 737 similar to the one hijacked so that they can make a better plan and see from where they can enter the plane best. This permission was given and Mr Albert Mizzi, who was the Chairman of Air Malta at the time, arranged that I take the group leaders on board an Air Malta aircraft which was being prepared for passengers loading at Park 8. I took them to this plane and the crew were a little socked when they saw these commandos checking how each Emergency Exit operates. I was even surprised as I expected that such specialists should have been trained to know all these basic things by heart. This inspection did not take more than 20 minutes as I insisted to clear the plane so it can depart on time. Afterwards I found out that Mr Mizzi intended to have them visit another 737 at the maintenance hangar and not the one in operation. Needless to say, immediately I returned back I informed the Prime Minister of what happened and that it added to my doubts of how professional they were.
Again we met their Commander and the American Advisors and insisted that we are not very happy, but they have to carry out the operation and we made it clear that it has to be a ‘Rescue’ operation that is the main aim is to save as many as possible from the hostages and crew. So we asked them to prepare a detailed plan for us to consider and approve.
By this time it must have been late in the afternoon. They came with a plan to force the rear ‘Hold’ door with a little explosion and they will enter the plane from the rear through the hole made by this little explosion. The American advisors informed us that they were trying to get some X-ray/Detection equipment from Sigonella to first establish where the hijackers were in the plane. By this time we were still not sure how many of them there were, I could estimate three or four in accordance with the information we managed to gather from the released hostages and crew members.
It must have been around 1800hrs that the Maltese Authorities gave their clearance for the ‘Storming’ of the plane. We set the time for 2030hrs, considering that it would have been dark enough to keep all movements discrete. I believe that except the PM, his Cabinet, the Police Commissioner and myself there were no other Maltese who knew what the plans were.
In the meantime, the Americans where in contact with Siginella to arrange for the special detection equipment and from what I could have gathered at the time, they had none available there.
It must be emphasised again that the Prime Minister and his Cabinet all time insisted with the Egyptian and American Ambassadors that it must be a Rescue Mission. They always stated that that was their aim too. But as we shall see next week, the TF777 had other intentions.
Luckily at that time there were no more shooting of hostages as our negotiator, Major Joe Sultana, was instructed to start giving them some hope that the refuelling is being considered by the Maltese Authorities as long as there will be no more victims. This was to play for time for next 2 hours or so that were left before the ‘Storming Operation’ goes on.
I recommended that half an hour before the storming operation starts we shall call the Officials on site responsible for the different aspects of security and rescue tasks, that is, the Chief Airport Fire Officer, the Head of the Police SMU and the Army Field Officer to brief them what was going to happen so that they instruct their men to be prepared to standby for any instructions from the Tower.
At about 7 pm, the Cabinet decided that we shall move away from the Tower Building all the foreign diplomats and take them to No 1 Site, at the DCA Administrative offices for some tea and coffee and from where they would have a better view of Park 4. This was to ensure their safety as it stands to reason that if during the storming operation somebody from the hijacking and in case of a remote possibility that we get some uninvited terrorists help, the ATC will be their first target.
During all the hijack operation we were more than conscious that external interference was a possibility mainly as we new who was behind the hijack and that they may try to make an ‘Entebbe’ replica as a prestige show of force. Thus, the Radar Controllers had strict instructions to ensure that they keep a strict watch of their screens. At that time the only radar available was the vintage AR1 left by the RAF in 1979 (Pic 39). Its state of art was outdated but its performance was technically satisfactory. We knew that if such an event had to happen the first thing that it will be done is radar jamming. Unfortunately this radar was for civil aviation use and had no electronic countermeasures at all. So as the Head of the Engineering Section I instructed my Radar Technicians to watch the technical radar display all the time and if they notice anything unusual in the radar performance they should let me know immediately. I briefed them of what time of effects they shall expect if somebody was trying to jam the radar. In the meantime, the airfield was in operation so we had all the Navaids sites manned with technical staff for any immediate action which may be required to switch them off immediately. Normally these can be switched off remotely from the Control Tower but we did not want to take any chances of a remote control failure during a possible critical time.
At about 1910hrs the Radar Controllers have noticed some radar echos on their screens North of Gozo, the returns were not consistent. Immediately we contacted the Egyptian and American Ambassadors to guarantee that as far as they are concerned they are not aware of any official movements from their states. They both said that they have no reasons to believe that any of their forces are intending to approach the Island. The Radar echos were not permanent and it was suspected that it must have been a high altitude unidentified aircraft. I explained that it could have been some thing else that gives such an image, such as a large bird or some known weather phenomenas. But under those circumstances you must think of the worst scenario and not a simple solution.
This made it more urgent to literary get the foreign diplomats moved away from the ATC area as soon as possible. So I was instructed to take them immediately to my office which overlooks Park 2 and has a direct sight of Park 4. As soon as I was in front of the Control Tower getting them on the transport van to take us to the other side of the airfield, we heard a big bang and lots of shooting.
Immediately I raced back to the Control Tower Visual Room to help with the situation. Needless to say the foriegn diplomats followed suit.
As I got at the Visual Room it appeared that there was some panic as nobody was expecting the operation to start at that time, and most of the people there were not aware of the planned storming, so they must have thought that something went on between the Hijackers and the Crew/Passengers.
So immediately I activated the Crash Alarm and the Fire Tenders rushed to Park 4 as fast as they can go. The Fire Tenders were those left by the RAF on the withdrawal in 1979 which were kept in service by the purchase of some redundant vehicles of the same type we managed to acquire from the UK at a very good bargain price. At least two of them were complete vehicles procured as surplus from the UK. At the time Minister Lorry Sant asked me whether or not they can move faster. I told him that they are more than fast for their age and that unfortunately every time we ask for funds for new ones the government did not approve, that was why we had to procure surplus vehicles from the UK. In fact they were going fast enough as they reached the area within the internationally specified 2 minutes. I would say that they were on Park 4 in less than a minute and a half. But at the time each second seems eternity.
The Maltese Security Forces around the area informed us that the Commandos were shooting every passenger who was running away from the stricken aircraft. The Chief Fire Officer radio a request to give clear instruction to commence the fire fighting and rescue operation as he said that they were not being allowed to access nearby the plane. This caused more confusion and the Egyptian Ambassador was confronted by some Cabinet Members and asked him whether or not he knew of different instructions other than those agreed with the Maltese Authorities. It was just a situation where you feel and know that there is nothing that you can do from your position and just hope that the Fire Fighters, Security Personnel and the Medics knew what they were doing. Afterwards when I found out what has gone at the time on Park 4 I was more than convinced that all of the Maltese side have done more than what was expected under those conditions.
In fact, the firing was out within 2 or 3 minutes, although it looked as hours at the time. The Firemen entered the aircraft with breathing apparatus to drag out as many passengers as possible in the shortest time possible. The Security personnel got hold of all the persons who managed to walk or run out of the aircraft. The Medics gave First Aid to all who needed on the spot and immediately conveyed them to the Emergency Hospital at Luqa Airport, those who appeared to have severe injuries were taken straight to St Luke’s Hospital, the main hospital on the Island. Within 15 minutes all was over and there was dead silence at the Visual Room of the Control Tower, everybody looking at each other and not finding any words to exclaim. Everybody was just numb, speechless and lifeless for few moments, trying to understand what exactly happened. It appeared to me as it was a nightmare, in some sense it still is up to this day.
But what went wrong, or why things ended the way they did and not as planned and hoped for? What exactly happened? Could the situation have been avoided if there were more brains to make possibly better decisions? All these questions came to my mind at that time and still revive from time to time. I honestly think and I am more than convinced that if it had to happen again with the same information that we had, the same knowledge that we had and under the same conditions as we had at the time I am 100% sure that we would have followed the same suite. After the events everybody is wiser. But you have to be there to understand that under those circumstances there was nothing else we could have done other than rejected the Egyptian Commandos and tried make the Storming Operation with Maltese Forces personnel. It could have been that we would have had fewer victims as a total but would definitely have Maltese citizens amongst them.
So, let’s see what actually went on during the Storming Operation and the Rescue Operation undertaken by the Maltese Fire Fighters and Security Forces.
First of all, the Egyptians could have had two reasons why they attacked an hour before the agreed time. One was that they could have mixed the Local Time, UTC and the actual time in Cairo. The other reason could have been that the Egyptian and American Chiefs gave them such instructions as soon as they got aware that we have detected some unexplained returns on our radar screens. This premature start of the operation deprived us to brief in time, at the last minute, our Security Forces, Fire Fighters and Rescue Personnel to be prepared for action. This would have made a lot of difference in the number of victims as their response would have been faster and better coordinated.
Secondly, either the Explosive Experts who detonated the rear luggage Hold door were no experts at all or they done on purpose to kill as many people as possible at the rear seats. It is very logic that at least one or two Hijackers would have been at that area and possibly others at the front. It will be highly unlikely that there will be any hijackers half way through aircraft aisle. In fact the explosion blew at least twelve persons who were sitting on the last four seats at the rear. Also that way they made a large enough hole in the plane to have easy and rapid access of the Commandos into the plane.
Thirdly, the same explosion ignited some fire which resulted in excessive fumes and most likely toxic ones due to plastic material on the plane. This was another major cause of the larger toll of victims.
Also, when the Hijackers realised that the plane was being attacked, they let some hand grenades both inside the plane and also onto the Park so that the Commandos could not enter the aircraft via the Stairway. In fact one of the Commandos lost one leg when he tried to kick the grenade by his foot. In hospital he told us that he is glad that he will join Allah with one leg rather than having both and would have not been loyal to his Allah.
It is important to note that the Commandos shot every person that managed to get away from the plane in the first moments of the attack, as they wanted to make sure that no Hijacker would escape. Initially about ten persons were killed this way. One of them was the husband of that Philippine women whom I assured here of his safety. I was lucky not to face her again after the event as I would not know what to say.
Finally and most important is the fact that the Egyptian Commandos held our Fire Fighters at gun point so that they lost the first precious two or three minutes of the Rescue Operation. Within those 2 minutes it would have made the whole difference and I am sure that if they were not obstructed to carry there duties immediately the death toll would have been less than half of the number of victims. Two minutes are crucial for a survival in a smoke environment, a person can survive the first minute or two but then he probably would be out of breath and becomes unconscious very quickly.
Our Firemen have done miracles under the circumstances and if it was not for their hard work there would have not been any survivals at all. In fact the Fire Crew Commander ended in hospital after the operation with a heart stress failure due to the number of times he entered the aircraft with the Breathing Apparatus to drag out passengers to be given artificial respiration by the Medical people on site. Most of the survivals were dragged out in the nick-of-time by the Maltese Fire Fighters equipped with the Breathing Apparatus and Fire Resistant Suites.
While all this was going on, at the Visual Room at the Control Tower we were still looking at each other. I clearly remember the Prime Minister Dr Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici staring at all of us and just asking ‘Why? Why? It had to happen like this.’ Immediately we were getting the information of the number of people rescued and there state of injuries. Mentally we were quickly realising how many were still trapped or just found dead. Within half an hour the Rescue Operation and Fire Fighting was completed and we had a very good estimate of the total number of victims. By then I looked around and found nobody from the foreign diplomats around, they all disappeared very quickly without a single word. The only one left was the Egyptian Ambassador. The Prime Minister told me and the Ambassador to go the Park 4 together. When we got there, there was not much to see except a stricken aircraft, all the bodies were already shifted to a small hangar on the DCA Offices side. The rest were being hospitalised. Then we went to the hangar where all the bodies were laid for eventual identification at a later stage. The scene was sickening, I just cannot forget it. I just thought ‘what a waste’. Then the Prime Minister decided to go to the Hospitals where the injured were being looked after. He asked whether or not I wanted to go and automatically I told him ‘No Thank You’. Not because I was rude but as just could not take more at that moment, I just wanted to go home so that my wife and children get to know that I was still around, as during the whole operation we cannot make contact with our families mainly due to pressure of work and also as a security measure to avoid any risk of leaks of what is going on. Immediately I realised that they would have been watching the TV Screens and seeing the what was going on, on Park 4 they would have suspected that I might have been on the scene even though they knew that my duties were at the Control Tower.
I think I got home just after midnight. My wife asked me what has gone wrong, why all those victims? I just told her to leave me alone at that moment, I went for a shower and tried to go to bed. It was a very long night, all the time trying to justify what happened. At first it was very difficult to accept it had to end that way and tried to examine whether or not I could have personally done something to avoid it. The first few days were difficult, but as I became more aware of the exact events, I became more convinced that on the Maltese side there weren’t much we could have done better. I tried to find positive things out of the whole disaster.
Up to this day I am more than convinced that nobody on the Maltese side could have acted differently at the time. The whole disaster was due to the very fact that the Egyptian Commandos intentions were not primarily as a Rescue operation but their prime aim was to ensure that all terrorists were killed on the spot and a lesson be given to their group.
They failed on their mission as it was after some days if not weeks that it was confirmed that one of the Hijackers was being hospitalised and treated as a hostage passenger. He was Omar Ali Rezaq. Everybody knows the saga which followed after some years in Maltese Prisons. He was recaptured by the Americans in Nigeria and went Trial in the States. On October 7th 1993 he was sentenced for life imprisonment in the US after he done 3 years in prison out of the 15 years he got sentenced in Malta. He left Malta to Ghana under a different name and eventually was arrested in Nigeria.
On the Maltese side, a positive outcome was the fact that the Egypt Air Hijack was the last Hijack in Malta and for some years which followed Aircraft Hijacking reduced in number extensively world wide. So, maybe the lives of the victims could have been the sacrifice which rendered hijacking to become less popular and not an effective tool for terrorists. But this has not brought terrorism to an end. Different ways and methods have since been applied, such as Suicide bombs.
Aircraft Accident Brief Description
Type: Boeing 737-266
Operator: Egypt Air
Year built: 1976
Engines: 2 Pratt & Whitney JT8D-
Crew: fatalities / 6 on board
Passengers: fatalities / 92 on board
Total: 60 fatalities / 98 on board
Location: Luqa Airport (Malta)
Phase: Ground Nature
Nature: Scheduled Passenger
Flight: Athens – Cairo IAP (Flight No. 648)
Remarks: Written-off. EgyptAir Boeing 737 was hijacked by 3 men. While on the ground at Malta the aircraft was stormed by Egyptian forces. During the fight, several hand grenades were thrown into the cabin causing a fire. This aircraft was written off due to damage. It was cut in cyclinderical pieces and left Malta in a container a couple of months later were it was sold to a rich man as he wanted it for his collection