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When Malta saved 247 passengers on hijacked plane

The hijacked KLM jumbo jet at Luqa airpport in 1973. Picture courtesy of Godfrey Mangion.

The hijacked KLM jumbo jet at Luqa airpport in 1973. Picture courtesy of Godfrey Mangion.

Malta made the headlines 36 years ago today when a hijacked KLM Jumbo Jet arrived here 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 26-27 - 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 in safely.

The aircraft left Malta early on November 27.

It flew to Dubai where the hijackers handed over the plane and their remaining hostages in return for safe passage out of the country.

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