Algerian officials boarded a hijacked Kuwaiti jumbo jet Wednesday and began negotiations with Shiite Moslem gunmen who killed two people and were holding about 35 others hostage.
A delegation of Kuwaiti officials arrived in Algiers to help in the effort to free the plane, which was hijacked April 5 on a flight from Bangkok to Kuwait with 112 people aboard. The Boeing 747 left Larnaca, Cyprus, Tuesday night and flew to Algiers after 12 more hostages were freed.Fifty-seven others were released earlier when the plane was on the ground in Mashhad, northeastern Iran.
The hijackers are demanding that Kuwait free 17 pro-Iranian extremists convicted in the 1983 bombings of the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait. Kuwait has rejected the demand.
One of the 12 freed passengers said the gunmen got new weapons when the plane was in Mashhad. Ramadan Ali, who holds dual U.S.-Egyptian citizenship, spoke in an interview in Larnaca with NBC-TV's "Today."
"They changed the crew, you know, their team," said Ali. "One of them left . . . and another two guys came over . . . and they provided them with new weapons . . . and bombs . . . and ropes . . . and explosives."
Ali said he hid his U.S. passport in his briefcase while on the plane.
Adnan Rashi Majiki, a Kuwaiti passenger in his 60s who was one of the 12 released in Larnaca, told The Associated Press that the hijackers "were six but I think in Mashhad they became seven."
A Kuwait newspaper reported Wednesday that one hijacker was believed to have boarded the plane in Mashhad.
Algerian Interior Minister Hedi Khediri visited the Kuwaiti Airways jet twice and told reporters he was assured the gunmen would "use no violence" on Algerian territory.
Later, an Algerian army officer, identified only as Col. Bechine, met with the hijackers on the plane for about a half-hour. No details of the meeting were available.
Three members of the Kuwaiti royal family remain aboard the jumbo jet.
Khediri said he had seen five or six hijackers, but did not know the exact number.
Mohammed Saud Al-Osaimi, a Kuwaiti deputy foreign minister, and nine other government officials arrived Wednesday. "I hope this will be the last stage of the voyage," Al-Osaimi told reporters.
Kuwait newspapers quoted PLO chairman Yasser Arafat as saying he doubted Algeria would be the last stop for the captive jumbo jet.
"I don't think this operation will come to an end in Algiers," Arafat said, according to the Al Watan daily.
In an interview with Cable Network News, Arafat blamed Iran for the hijacking. When asked who was involved, Arafat said: "Some of them are Lebanese. Some of them belong to the Iranian government.
"According to my best information, they (the Iranians) are behind the whole operation," Arafat said in a telephone interview from North Yemen.
The PLO was involved in negotiations to try to end the crisis.
Asked if the hijackers still planned to kill hostages as they have threatened, Khediri said: "I cannot answer this question because doing so would complicate my efforts and could even compromise them."
He said the passengers were in good condition. The hijackers are armed with grenades and guns.
"I believe they (the hijackers) know what they are doing. They gave me the impression of being extremely determined," he said.
Some of the freed hostages said they were treated well during eight days in captivity and did not know their captors had killed two passengers.
"We were not beaten. We were not harassed. They treated us very nicely," said Sherif Mahbojh Badrawi, a Cairo-based ticketing agent for Kuwait Airways. Badrawi and other passengers spoke to reporters in Larnaca General Hospital.
Mohammed Kamel Sayyid Rehan, a 32-year-old Egyptian who works as a caterer for the airline, said none of the passengers was aware of the killings.
The blue and white jet, which the gunmen have called the "plane of martyrdom," landed in Algiers at 3:07 a.m. Wednesday (8:07 p.m. MDT Tuesday) after sitting for five days in the Larnaca airport.
Algeria's official APS news agency said talks between the hijackers and Algerian authorities began about two hours later. The plane is isolated on the tarmac of Houari Boumedienne airport 400 yards from the terminal.
Khediri was reportedly accompanied by Transport Minister Rachid Benyelles and the head of state security, Abdelmadjid Bouzbid.