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Pak frees Pan Am hijack quartet

Islamabad, Jan. 3: Four Palestinians convicted in the 1986 hijacking of a Pan Am jet — remembered for the heroism of Neerja Bhanot —were freed in Pakistan today and put on a flight to Dubai.

Mohammed Abdul Khalil Hussain, Daud Mohammed Hafiz, Mohammed Ahmed al-Munawar and Jamal Saeed had been sentenced to death for the hijacking at Karachi airport that the Indian air hostess foiled.

But the punishment was later commuted to life sentence, which in Pakistan means 14 years in jail. The four walked out of the high-security Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi after serving their term.

The leader of the hijackers, Zayd Hassan Abd al-Latif Masud al Safarini, had been freed in 2001 — within a fortnight of 9/11 — after President Pervez Musharraf reduced his sentence.

But the Americans believed that justice had not been done in the case and US agents caught Safarini as he tried to sneak into Jordan. He was brought to the US, where he pleaded guilty to 95 charges and will spend the rest of his life in prison.

In 2003, he was sentenced to three consecutive life terms and a further 25 years in prison.

Twenty-two passengers and crew, including Neerja who was two days short of her 23rd birthday, were killed in the attempt to hijack the American airliner on its way from Mumbai to New York.

Neerja’s heroism and alertness had made the incident a legend of sorts for Indians at that time. She was greeting emplaning passengers at the aircraft’s door in Karachi when she noticed the armed hijackers, masquerading as airport security staff in uniform, arriving in a van and boarding the plane.

With remarkable presence of mind, she activated a hijack code on the aircraft’s intercom and within seconds, the pilot and the flight crew ejected, foiling the hijackers’ plans to fly the aircraft and the passengers to Cyprus and demand the release of 1,500 Palestinians jailed in Israel.

Frustrated and angry, the hijackers, members of the dreaded Abu Nidal terrorist organisation, commandeered the plane all the same. When the plane’s auxiliary power unit failed at the end of 15 hours of futile negotiations, it plunged into darkness and the terrorists began shooting passengers and throwing hand grenades at them and the crew, who had been herded into one end of the aircraft.

Many Indians were among the dead. The Boeing 747 was carrying around 400 passengers.

Neerja was hit in the arm but she managed to open a chute and let the passengers escape. Four more bullets struck Neerja, killing her. More than 100 people were wounded.

The air hostess was posthumously awarded the Ashoka Chakra, India’s highest honour for bravery in peacetime. The only woman to have received the award, Neerja was also the youngest recipient. A stamp was issued in her honour in 2004. A trust set up by her family, to which Pan Am also contributed, honours Indian women showing exemplary courage.

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