Shiite Moslem gunmen slipped out of a Kuwaiti jet at dawn Wednesday - reportedly with a promise of safe conduct - and their 31 hostages were freed, ending a 16-day hijacking ordeal.
The hijackers left Algiers for an unknown destination, according to sources in the Persian Gulf who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The Kuwait News Agency said no deal was made with the hijackers except safe passage to Iran or Lebanon.The Algerian government had mediated with the hijackers, who the hostages said numbered about eight but the Kuwait News Agency said numbered nine. The government and the hijackers said they reached a solution but did not say what it was.
The gunmen had killed two passengers since seizing the Kuwait Airways Boeing 747 on April 5. But Kuwait refused to bow to the hijackers' demand that 17 pro-Iranian terrorists imprisoned in Kuwait be released.
Most of the 31 freed hostages were believed to be Kuwaiti, including three members of Kuwait's royal family. It was reported previously that about 35 hostages were aboard the plane.
An official source in Kuwait, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Algerian Foreign Minister Taleb Ibrahimi promised the hijackers safe passage when he met with them aboard the plane on Tuesday.
A 31-year-old businessman, Tadar El-Kebi, said he saw the hijackers going through the plane trying to wipe off their fingerprints shortly after 4 a.m. Wednesday.
"This was the first indication I had that our release was imminent," El-Kebi said.
The hijackers were whisked out of the jet at about 5:40 a.m. (10:40 p.m. MDT) and taken in unmarked cars to an undisclosed location, said Algerian officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. The hostages were brought out about 20 minutes later.
Floodlights that had bathed the blue-and-white airliner nightly since it landed here a week ago were turned off at 9 p.m. Tuesday, allegedly for a technical reason. They never came back on, and the area around the jet was dark, making it difficult for reporters to detect any movement.
Anware Al-Sabah and Ibtesam Al-Sabah, second cousins of Kuwait's emir and the only two women among the hostages, were the first to descend the gangway from the plane.
The women, wearing black veils, were escorted to a car and taken to a hospital with their brother, Fadel Khaled Al-Sabah, who rode in an ambulance, a doctor said. The brother was suffering from a nervous disorder.
The rest of the hostages boarded a white bus and cars and waved to reporters on the tarmac as they were driven to the airport VIP lounge. The seven crew members and 21 passengers carried hand luggage.
The men were unshaven, looked haggard and dazed and stared vacantly.
"We lived in fear. We were very frayed. We had lost hope that it would turn out this way," said Kuwaiti student Youssef al-Angeri, 24.
Passengers and crew said the hijackers always wore light blue hoods in their presence.
"The worst moment was when they put a gun to a passenger's head," said the plane's purser, Abdel Mon'em Mahmoud, an Egyptian. "Their eyes were sharp and expressionless, like a shark."
Interior Minister Hedi Khediri, who led the mediation team, announced the release without giving details: "A solution settling all the issues of the hijacking has just been reached."
Asked what would become of the hijackers, he said: "That is a question which regards Algeria."
The gunmen said in a statement in Arabic over the plane's radio at 4 a.m.: "We declare to the Moslem people and people who seek freedom today, on the third day of Ramadan, that we will end the Kuwaiti airplane operation, giving our best regards to the Kuwaiti people."
Ramadan, the Moslem holy month, started in Algeria on Monday.
The shades on the airplane's windows were raised for the first time since its arrival April 13 in Algiers, the third stop on an odyssey that began April 5 when the jet was seized on a Bangkok-Kuwait flight with 112 people aboard.