In April 1988, a routine Kuwait Airways flight from Bangkok to Kuwait became the focus of the world’s media as it was hijacked by Lebanese guerilla fighters and forced to fly to several different countries across three continents, all with hostages onboard. Once finally on the ground in Algeria 16 days later, the hijackers escaped and have never been found. Let’s take a look at how this extraordinary saga unfolded and the remarkable twist of its conclusion.
Background to flight 422
On April 5th, 1988, Kuwait Airways flight KU422, operated by a Boeing 747-200 registered 9K-ADB, departed Bangkok heading nonstop back to its home base at Kuwait International Airport (KWI) in the Middle East. The flight had 97 passengers and 15 crew onboard that day, including three members of the Kuwaiti royal family.
Three hours after take-off, as the passengers were relaxing in the cabin and the flight cruised over the Arabian Sea, several Lebanese passengers armed with machine guns and hand grenades overpowered the cabin crew. They found their way to the flight deck, and the flight crew was ordered to fly the aircraft toward Iran.
On approaching Iranian airspace, flight 422 was initially refused landing permission. However, upon learning that the aircraft was low on fuel, the Iranian authorities capitulated and cleared the plane to head toward Mashhad Airport (MHD).
Upon landing, the hijackers issued their demands to the Iranian authorities that they required 17 Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim prisoners held by the Kuwaiti Government to be released.
This group of individuals had been imprisoned following a conviction for their involvement in terrorist bombings in Kuwait in 1983. The hijackers threatened to blow the aircraft up and to kill the three Kuwaiti Royals onboard if their terms were not met or if anyone approached the aircraft.
Standoff in Mashhad
Following the intervention of the Iranian Prime Minister, 25 of the 112 hostages were released. The first group to be released included a male passenger with a medical condition as well as 24 female passengers the following day (April 6th, 1988). Another 32 passengers were released on April 7th. This followed negotiations between the hijackers and a team of Kuwaiti negotiators who had been urgently dispatched to Iran to assist in the negotiations.
However, those negotiations stalled as the Kuwaiti officials refused to condemn their country’s support for Iraq in its conflict with Iran, and the hostages refused to release any further passengers as a result. Subsequently, with the talks at a stalemate, the hijackers forced the Iranian authorities to refuel the airplane by threatening to attempt to take off with empty fuel tanks and shooting at security officials who were supervising the aircraft from the ground.
Negotiations with the hijackers in Mashhad proved fruitless. Photo: Getty Images
Airborne once more
Once refueled, the aircraft took off from Mashhad on April 8th and initially headed for Beirut in Lebanon. However, the authorities there refused the plane permission to land, upon which it set a course for Damascus in Syria. Once again, the hijackers, along with the aircraft, crew, and passengers, were refused permission to land at Damascus Airport.
After seven hours of flying and once again starting to run low on fuel, the Government of Cyprus finally stepped in and granted permission for the aircraft to land at Larnaca Airport (LCA) on the island. On April 9th, the aircraft landed at Larnaca and was instructed to park at a remote corner of the airfield, away from the terminal and other commercial operations.
Once parked up and shut down, the hijackers re-engaged in negotiations with both Cypriot officials and also representatives from the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. The result of these further discussions led to the release of a further hostage on April 9th and a further 12 hostages on April 12th, leaving 27 passengers onboard.
However, during the intervening days, as the hijackers became frustrated with the pace of negotiations and the refusal of the authorities to refuel the plane, two young Kuwaiti male passengers were shot dead on the aircraft, with their bodies being unceremoniously dumped from one of the aircraft passenger doors onto the apron below. Additionally, the pilots reported over the radio that the hijackers had started beating the passengers, causing injuries to some, whilst others were sick.
The aircraft sat on the ground in Cyprus for days with tensions between the parties rising. Photo: Getty Images
In a clear display of their growing frustration with the Cypriot authorities’ pedestrian methods of negotiating, the hijackers issued a threat to take off and fly the plane into the Royal Palace in Kuwait City. They also issued a warning to carry out what was described as a “slow and quiet massacre” of the remaining passengers and crew if the Lebanese prisoners were not released and the aircraft refueled.
Ratcheting up the tension of the already fraught impasse further, the crew reported that the hijackers had dressed in shrouds and had renamed the aircraft from its Kuwait Airways name of ‘Al Jaberiya‘ to ‘Plane of the Great Martyrs‘ in preparation to carry out their threats of destroying the aircraft and its remaining occupants. The highly contentious situation was aggravated further when air traffic controllers at Larnaca continued to use the aircraft’s callsign as ‘Kuwait four-two-two’ rather than the new moniker given to it by the hijackers.
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Heading to Algeria
With tensions clearly running high and with the threat of the aircraft being blown up on the ground at Larnaca looming large, the Cypriot authorities finally relinquished and refueled the aircraft. On April 13th, five days after landing in Cyprus, flight 422 took to the air once again, this time heading towards Algeria, which had already granted the plane permission to land there.
Upon arrival at Houari Boumedienne Airport in Algiers (ALG), Algerian authorities began negotiations with the hijackers. The aircraft was allowed to park close to the terminal so that the authorities could see what was happening inside the aircraft while the talks continued.
The aircraft covered 3,200 miles (5,100km) during the hijacking. Image: GCmap.com
Reaching the end game
The following day, on April 14th, a hostage with diabetes was released on medical grounds, leaving the remaining hostages at the mercy of the hijackers and the negotiators. However, two passengers were forced to relay a message over the aircraft’s radio that the remaining passengers would be killed unless the hijackers’ demands were met. They reported that the mistreatment of the passengers had recommenced and that anyone found to be talking without permission onboard was subjected to physical violence.
As the days wore on, the hijackers became increasingly agitated, with a further request for fuel being made on April 16th. This request was refused at the request of Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian authorities (the latter of whom had stepped in to act as mediators to resolve the situation).
The Kuwait government refused to discuss the 17 Lebanese prisoners, much to the frustration of the Algerian authorities, who were now ultimately responsible for the outcome of the aircraft, passengers, and crew.
In an unprecedented turn of events, on April 18th, the Kuwaiti national soccer team offered to take the place of the remaining hostages, and even one of the Kuwaiti royals onboard the plane, Prince Fadhal al-Sabah, called for the Kuwaiti Government to meet the hijackers’ demands and release the Lebanese prisoners being held.
A final twist in the story
With the hijacking seemingly entrenched to a point whereby the destruction of the aircraft and all those onboard seemed almost inevitable, a dramatic and unforeseen turn of events brought the whole saga to a swift (and safe) conclusion.
On April 20th, the hijackers released all the remaining hostages onboard before surrendering themselves to the Algerian authorities. Before surrendering, however, they issued a statement saying they would continue to fight for the release of the prisoners.
The hijackers were taken off the aircraft and were initially held in custody. However, much to the surprise of the outside world watching on, the hijackers were allegedly given safe passage out of Algeria and were flown to an undisclosed location, never to be identified or seen again. Kuwait did not free the 17 prisoners as a result of the hijacking.
A bizarre end to the ordeal
Following its dramatic conclusion, the crisis lasted 16 days, making it one of the world’s longest hijackings of a commercial airliner. With the hostage crisis over, the remaining passengers were flown back to Kuwait, and the two Kuwaitis killed during the course of the hijacking were buried at a ceremony attended by over 2,000 people.
Captain Subhi Yousif told reporters in the days following the conclusion that he had been unaware of the deaths of the two Kuwaiti men until his release by the hijackers.
In the subsequent fallout and investigation held into the hijacking, many of the surviving passengers alleged that Iran had aided the hijackers by providing weapons and explosives while the plane was on the ground in Mashhad.
A Kuwaiti security officer traveling as a passenger onboard the plane told investigators that several more men (disguised as cleaners) boarded the plane after it landed in Iran, producing submachine guns and explosives that the hijackers didn’t initially have when the flight was first hijacked. These reports have never been substantiated, however.
Passengers also claimed that the hijackers wiped surfaces clean of their fingerprints and also removed other identifying evidence from the aircraft before the siege ended.
According to Planespotters.net, the aircraft involved, 9K-ADB, was returned to service with Kuwait Airways and flew with the airline until it was finally withdrawn in 2008. The aircraft was then delivered to Wells Fargo bank Northwest based in the United States as N309MF and was eventually scrapped at Abu Dhabi International Airport in 2012.
Do you remember the hijacking of Kuwait Airways flight 422, or did you ever fly on the aircraft involved? Let us know your experiences in the comments.
Source: Planespotters.net, GCmap.com, Associated Press