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Default October 18, 2015

A leaf from history: The botched Pan Am plane hijacking at Karachi airport

On the calm, humid early morning of Sept 6, 1986, a division of Pakistani commandoes stormed a hijacked Pan Am aircraft at the Karachi airport. Six hijackers were arrested, all of whom belonged to Abu Nidal, a Palestinian group struggling to create an independent Palestinian state.

The five hijackers — Zayed Hassan Abdul Latif Safarini (leader), Wadoud Mohammad Hafiz Alturki, Jamal Saeed, Mohammad Abdullah Khalil Hassan Rahayat and Mohammad Ahmad Al-Munawar — were arrested and later awarded life sentenced.

The aircraft was a regular Pan American World Airways 747-121, which had left India’s Sahar airport near Mumbai a day earlier for an onwards journey to Frankfurt, Germany and was to culminate at the John F. Kennedy Airport, New York. Carrying some 360 passengers, it had landed flawlessly at the Karachi airport to pick up some passengers, and now, the aircraft crew was preparing to take off.

Palestinian militant group Abu Nidal attempts to capture an aircraft to attack the Israeli defence ministry
Before the flight could take off, at around 6.00am, a van seemingly belonging to the airport’s security guards was parked besides the plane. Four men dressed in security guards uniform frisked out and stormed into the plane. They were armed with assault rifles and after entering, immediately began firing at passengers who were busy locating their seats and placing their luggage.

Someone from the cabin crew became suspicious and informed the cockpit crew, who fled without wasting a second, leaving the passengers and other crew members at the mercy of hijackers. Those who escaped included the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer.

Upon hearing that the cockpit team had managed to flee, the ring leader flew into a rage. All his plans had dashed. In that state, he summoned a young man at random, later known as Rajesh Kumar, spoke to him, shot him dead and threw his body on the tarmac.

Out in the main building of the airport, some officers were busy in chalking out the strategy of how to handle the situation. They soon sent an SOS to the respective quarters, and within no time, the Shaheen Contingent of the 1st Battalion of the Army’s SS Group was dispatched to take care of the matter.

As Safarini continued to find a way out, much time was wasted. As night began to fall, all hijackers became confused and jittery. During the unmanageable movement of passengers, someone even tried to open an emergency exit of the aircraft in an attempt to escape. But there was no way out.

Safarini started collecting passengers’ passports so that American and British citizens could be ascertained. While sifting through the passports, Safarini called out the name of John Thexton, an Englishman, who had arrived in Pakistan on a mountaineering expedition. His brother, Pete, had also arrived with him but while climbing Broad peak, he died and was buried there.

For a long time, Thexton was asked to lie at the feet of his captors. He thought at the time that perhaps he was the next to be killed and thrown on the tarmac. It was only when Pakistani troops took control of the plane that he could get up.

Meanwhile, Safarini had become even more unsettled. At one stage, in a bid to blow up the plane, he also shot at an ammunition bag that the hijackers had brought along with them, but he missed his target. In the midst of this mess, the aircraft lost electric power, plunging the plane into darkness. This infuriated Safarini even more, and he began throwing grenades into the passengers’ seating area.

Amidst the commotion, one flight attendant managed to open an exit that had a slide shoot already rolled out. Passengers began escaping through it. Safarini began wildly shooting at passengers to stop them, but a flight attendant, Neerja Bhanot, became a human shield to three children whom Safarini wanted to target. She died while saving the children. The captors did not want to kill any more passengers on the runway but demanded that they be provided with cockpit crew so that they could accomplish their objectives. Obviously, this was a ridiculously foolish demand.

While passengers were fleeing through the slide shoot, Pakistani commandos rushed in. Seeing no chance to escape, all five hijackers surrendered. As the dust settled, it was learnt that in all 20 passengers were killed, including 12 Indians, the rest from USA, Mexico and Pakistan. Out of a total 380 passengers, 150 were wounded while the rest stayed safe.

“I do not like this killing,” said Safarini in a brief talk after being arrested. “I would like to go out dancing, go out with women, but the Americans and Israelis have stolen my country and without my country, these things are no good.”

During investigations, Safarini confessed that he belonged to the Abu Nidal group and their botched attempt was to take the aircraft and attack the Israeli defence ministry using the plane as bomb.

On July 6, 1988, a Pakistani court sentenced all of them to life imprisonment. After completing their jail terms, they were released but Safarini was later arrested in Bangkok by the FBI and taken to New York, where on May 13, 2005 he was sentenced to 160 years in jail.

While the group leader Safarini was recaptured by the United States, the four others could not be traced down after they were released on the completion of their punishment. Out of the four, Jamal Saeed Abdur Rahim is said to have been killed in a drone attack on tribal areas of Pakistan in 2010, but Abu Nidal organisation did not confirm him as its member.

Abu Nidal was formed in 1974 after a split appeared in Yaser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Front (PLO). The creation of the group was due to the Arafat’s policy of reconciliation, whereas Abu Nidal believed in military struggle against Israel.

Following this policy, the group made several attacks on its mother organistaion, the PLO. It is believed that PLO leader Abu Iyad and Abu Hul were killed in Tunis in 1991. It also claimed to have killed a Jordanian diplomat in Lebanon in 1994. The group also failed to attack and kill Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. In all, they are said to have undertaken attacks in 20 countries, killing some 900 people. Sabri Khalil al-Banna or Abu Nidal, the chief of the organisation, returned to Iraq in 2002, where he died during an exchange of fire with Iraqi intelligence officers.

Source: A leaf from history: The botched Pan Am plane hijacking at Karachi airport
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 18th, 2015
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