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HIJACKING AIR FRANCE 8969

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On Saturday 12/24/1994 at about 11:00 Air-France Flight 8969 was hijacked by a team of four armed men, dressed as Algerian presidential police, and were actually members of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group – GIA, at Algiers Houari Boumediene international airport. The hijacking took place at the bloodiest stage of the civil war in Algeria.

The Algerian military were suspicious when they noticed that the Air France 8969 had what appeared to be an unauthorized delay, so Algerian Special Forces, known as “Ninjas”, began surrounding the aircraft. 

Abdul Abdullah Yahia, the ringleader, and the other three GIA hijackers demanded cooperation from the 220 passengers and 12 flight crew under the threat of assault rifles and hand grenades. They placed one pack of dynamite in the cockpit and one pack under a seat in the middle of the aircraft. The terrorists wore the uniforms of the cabin crew to confuse possible army snipers.

Abderahmane Meziane-Cherif, the Algerian Interior Minister arrived to the scene at about 12:00 to supervise the situation and the negotiation. The hijackers, using the captain to speak for them, demanded the release of two FIS political party leaders, Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, who were in house arrest. FIS was banned in Algeria in 1992. Cherif demanded that the hijackers begin releasing children and elderly if they wanted to talk to the Algerian government. The media began arriving at the airport to cover the crisis.

At one point, at about 14:00, the hijackers dropped the demand for the release of the party leaders. The hijackers asked instead the captain to depart for Paris so the hijackers could hold a press conference there. The captain could not take off as the aircraft boarding stairs were still attached to the A300 and the Algerian authorities blocked the runway with parked vehicles. To increase the pressure the GIA hijackers executed a passenger who was also an Algerian police officer. Then hijackers executed a second passenger – 48-year old Bui Giang To, a commercial attaché in the Vietnamese Embassy in Algeria.

At that stage, the French government wanted to bring military personnel into Algeria to safely resolve the hijacking, but the Algerian government did not want foreign military to land on Algerian soil to resolve an Algerian political crisis.  By the end of Saturday the hijackers freed a total of 63 passengers, almost all the Algerian citizens and few others so most of the 170 passengers remaining on the aircraft were French citizens.

Information passed though the French consulate in Oran, the second largest city in Algeria, on the Mediterranean coast, on Sunday 12/25/1994 at about 02:00, 12 hours after the beginning of the event, suggested that flight 8969 hijackers ‘true aim was to crash the plane in Paris”. The information was obtained by the Algerian security service after they raided a GIA safe house in Oran linked to the 8969 hijacking.

In the early morning of Sunday 12/25/1994 the Algerian police sent Abdul Abdullah Yahia’s mother to plead with her son to release the passengers. The tactic failed and aroused anger among the Islamic hijackers. They located two staff members of the French embassy in Algeria and forced the embassy chef, Yannick Beugnet, to plea, through the microphone, for his life. The hijackers demanded that if the Algerian government did not let the A300 take off before 09:30, the hijackers would kill one passenger every 30 minutes. When the deadline passed they killed Yannick Beugnet.   

After the hijackers killed three passengers and under pressure from the French regime the aircraft was allowed, on Sunday 12/25/1994 at about 23:00, to take off. The captain of the flight Bernard Dhellemme convinced the hijackers that there is not enough fuel to reach Paris because of the power used for the air-condition and communication systems and they must to land in Marseille, France.

The aircraft landed in Marseille, on Monday 12/26/1994 at about 03:30. The French authorities deliberately led the aircraft away from the terminal and into a remote corner of the airport. In Marseille flight 8969 was contacted by Alain Gehin, the Chief of Police of Marseille.

The hijackers asked for 27 tones of fuel; the aircraft needed 9-10 tones to fly to Paris from Marseille. The request strengthened the French suspicion that the aircraft was going to be used as a firebomb in Paris. Passengers who were released in Algiers stated that the A300 had been rigged with explosives. Therefore .the French government had decided that the aircraft was not going to leave Marseille, regardless of the consequences.

Around 08:00 the hijackers demanded that the French let the aircraft take off by 09:40. The negotiators delayed the ultimatum by giving the aircraft additional food and water, emptying the toilet tanks, and providing vacuum cleaners. The French Gendarmerie Anti-terror intervention squad – the GIGM operatives servicing the aircraft were disguised as regular airport personnel. They discovered the aircraft doors were not blocked or booby trapped.

The GIGM men planted eavesdropping devices and “Cannon” microphones on the A300’s fuselage and windows. Denis Favier, GIGM commander, asked the hijackers if they would rather do a press conference in Marseille instead of Paris, since all of the major press were in Marseille instead of Paris. The hijackers agreed to hold a press conference on the flight 8969 board. 

The negotiators requested that the front of the aircraft would be cleared for the press conference. In fact it allowed the passengers to be moved to the rear of the aircraft. It created an area inside the plane for the GIGN during the storming of the aircraft without hostages.

At 15:00, the occupants of the aircraft were unaware of the GIGN’s true motives. The militants were confused about why the press had not yet arrived. Abdul Abdullah Yahia, frustrated by the absence of the press, ordered the pilot to move the aircraft.

Bernard Dhellemme parked the aircraft at the foot of the airport control tower and in close proximity to the terminal and other aircraft. The hijackers demanded an immediate press conference. If the hijackers detonated the aircraft at that point, many casualties would result. The moving of the aircraft disrupted the original plan of GIGM to take over the aircraft, especially the positions of the snipers.  

By 17:00, Monday 12/26/1994, the authorities had not delivered yet any amount of fuel to the A300. Abdul Abdullah Yahia entered the cabin to choose a fourth person to kill. He selected the youngest member of the Air France crew, who had told the hijackers that he was an atheist. Yahia, surprisingly, felt reluctant to kill a fourth passenger at that point and kept delaying the execution. Instead the hijackers opened the door and fired around the aircraft, began reciting verses from the Quraan on the public address system. The hijackers knew the negotiators were in the control tower, so through the side window of the cockpit they began to fire automatic machine guns towards the control tower.

At that point French PM Edouard Balladur allowed Denis Favier to take whatever actions he felt were necessary.

GIGM stormed the aircraft with mobilized stairs, simultaneously, through three entrances to the aircraft.  After a fierce gun battle of about 20 minutes, mainly around the cockpit, all four hijackers were killed. 9 of the 30 GIGN operatives received injuries, one of them received serious wounds when he fell from the mobilized stairs to the concrete when storming the cockpit. All 166 passengers and crew escaped unharmed.    

Air-France Flight 8969 hijacking appeared to foreshadow The 9/11. It was the first assumed attempt to use the hijacked aircraft itself, loaded with fuel, as a mega aerial bomb and it occurred almost at the same time when Bojinka Plot was foiled in the other side of the world – in the Philippines.

Several hours after the incident ended, the Armed Islamic Group -GIA, which had claimed responsibility for the event, killed four Catholic priests, 3 Frenchmen and a Belgian, in retaliation, in Tizi-Ouzou, Algeria.

Although Air France flight 8969 could be a benchmark and a warning of the possibilities of commercial flights to be use by terrorists – the event remained an isolated success of the war on terror without world wide implication. 
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