Troops Storm Plane To Free Hostages; One Reported Killed
NIAMEY, Niger (AP) _ Government troops assaulted a hijacked Nigerian Airways jetliner at midnight Wednesday, freeing 23 hostages and ending a three-day siege. A flight attendant was reported killed.
Five people were hurt in the raid on the Airbus 310, including one hijacker, said Niger’s foreign minister, M. Abdoulhamane Hama. The troops arrested four air pirates, the minister said.
The special Niger commando force burst into the rear of the plane while the hijackers and hostages were eating, firing tear gas and bullets. Passengers said the surprised hijackers, armed with guns and knives, tried to flee.
Hama called the raid a ″great success.″
The young Nigerian hijackers, who said they were opposed to the military- installed Nigerian government, took over the plane Monday after it took off from Lagos, Nigeria. They diverted it to Niamey, the capital of neighboring Niger.
They freed most of the 159 passengers Monday, but continued to hold 20 passengers and three crew members.
The hijackers issued a number of demands, ranging from government’s resignation to a restoration of press freedom. They said Wednesday that unless authorities met one demand, they would ignite gasoline they had splashed through the plane, authorities said.
Passengers freed from the plane, which has parked on the Niamey airport tarmac, said the assault on the aircraft came when the hijackers were in a relaxed mood.
E.C. Njemanze, a passenger, said people on board the aircraft had just finished eating and were bantering with their captors when blue-clad federal commandos stormed through the rear hatch of the plane.
″They weren’t cut out for the job,″ Njemanze said of the hijackers. ″I’ve read about it, I’ve seen films about it, now I’ve lived it. It was very harrowing.″
Obi Ozoemena, another passenger from Nigeria, said he saw a male flight attendant killed by bullets fired in the aircraft. He said there were several shots fired outside.
″They were caught completely by surprise,″ Ozoemena said of the hijackers.
The Foreign Ministry also confirmed at least one death.
Nigeria has been plagued by political turmoil since the military dictator, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, voided the results of the June 12 presidential election that was to end a decade of military dictatorship.
Babangida subsequently resigned under pressure but named as his successor a civilian supporter, Ernest Shonekan. Shonekan has promised to hold new elections.
Though the protests in Nigeria have occasionally collapsed into mob street violence, the plane hijacking is the first terrorist act linked to the political crisis.
Nigeria’s legitimate opposition groups have denounced the hijacking, which has drawn no perceptible public support.
Niger’s transportation minister, Souleye Abdouleye, told reporters Wednesday that the hijackers were willing to free the hostages if Nigerian authorities met any of their demands.
The demands include the resignation of the military-backed government, a return to press freedom, an investigation of the 1986 package-bomb slaying of a prominent journalist, and the prosecution of people who collaborated with corrupt officials of Nigeria’s military regime.
They also demanded an investigation into the September 1992 crash of a C- 130 Hercules transport plane that killed 160 Nigerian officers. There was unsubstantiated speculation the plane was sabotaged as part of military rivalries and infighting.
The drama took a new turn Wednesday when a group calling itself the Movement for the Advancement of Democracy claimed responsibility for the hijacking in a statement to Lagos newspapers.
Rights activists in Nigeria said the group announced its formation about a week before the hijacking.
The statement, signed by ″operations manager″ Sanni Abdullahi, said the group was comprised of ″humble citizens forced by circumstances to take what appears like a tough step to salvage our nation.″
The group said it controlled other ″suicide squad units″ that would be used to destablize the Nigerian government.