HIJACK OF SQ117
(26 Mar 1991)
From December 1990 to February 1991, Zahid Hussain Soomro and his wife, Saminah, lived in a rented room at Pending Road in Bukit Panjang. Dressed in shorts, T-shirts and slippers like any other Singaporean, he would walk round the neighbourhood. At other times, he watched television. Every day he would voluntarily mop his rented room in the 12th-storey, three-room HDB flat. He would also buy sweets and toys for his landlady’s sons, though they never took to him. This seemingly ordinary man would in the next month lead a four-man hijack team. Their target would be a plane from Singapore Airlines, on its regular shuttle flight from Kuala Lumpur back to Changi.
At 9.38 p.m., SQ 117, under the captaincy of Stanley Lim, departed from Kuala Lumpur for Singapore. It was to be Stanley’s fourth and last shuttle flight for the day. On board were 118 passengers from 18 countries and 9 crew members. The plane quickly ascended to 8 300 metres and it was scheduled to land at Singapore’s Changi Airport at about 10.20 p.m.
In mid-air, four Pakistanis under the leadership of Zahid Hussain Soomro announced that they were hijacking the plane. Initially, the other passengers thought that they were drunk and it was all a joke, but they were quickly proven wrong. With knives and canisters of explosives, they directed Capt Stanley Lim to fly to Sydney. When they were told that the plane simply did not have enough fuel to last the journey, they reluctantly agreed to allow the hijacked plane to land at Changi.
The four hijackers claimed they were members of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the main opposition party in Pakistan. When the plane landed at Changi, they immediately demanded the release of PPP leaders from prisons in Karachi, Hyderabad and Sakkar, including the husband of ousted Prime Minister Ms Benazir Bhutto. They asked to speak to the Pakistani ambassador, and threatened to kill the hostages if nothing was done. In addition, they also wanted to speak to PPP’s leader Ms Benazir Bhutto. They claimed they would release the hostages if she asked them to. They also demanded that the aircraft be refuelled so that they could take it to Australia and thereafter to Iraq or Libya.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs relayed the hijackers’ demands to the Pakistani High Commission. The Pakistani consul general was on leave and its acting consul decided against going to the airport so he could stay in touch with Islamabad. Benazir Bhutto’s phone number was given to the Singaporean negotiators, but repeated attempts to contact her residence in Pakistan’s Sind province came to nothing as the person who answered refused to wake her.
In a show of force, the hijackers pushed flight steward Mr Bernard Tan out of the aircraft at about midnight. With no progress made to their various demands, they poured liquor all over the floor and seats of the aircraft at about 2 a.m. and threatened to set the plane ablaze. Some minutes later, they set fire to a rolled up newspaper in the cockpit. The negotiators pacified the hijackers by assuring them that fuel was on the way. The fire was put out.
At about 3 a.m., the hijackers pushed out the Chief Steward, Mr Philip Cheong out of the aircraft. He informed the police that an American passenger had been threatened and punched. The first load of fuel was then delivered to the aircraft. Initially, the hijackers agreed to release ten women and child hostages before the next load of fuel. A few minutes later, however, they changed their minds and no hostage was released. Around 6 a.m., the hijackers seemed to lose their patience as the plane still had insufficient fuel. They then decided that the plane should fly to Jakarta instead. At 6.45 a.m., hijackers issued a five-minute deadline: if their requests were not met in five minutes, hostages would be killed.
At around 6.50 a.m., hooded SAF Commandos were given the command to storm the plane. They had already been waiting under the rear section of the plane for some time. With blackened faces and hands, the Commandos propped their ladders against the sides of the plane and opened the doors from the outside. The 20 commandos stormed in, some through the front entrance and others through the rear. Two loud thuds followed as the Commandos detonated some stun grenades to immobilise their enemy. The leading Commando shouted out to the passengers: "Get down! We are Singaporeans! We are here to rescue you!"
Automatic gunfire followed. The commandos, said the eyewitnesses, quickly killed three terrorists with their precision shooting. The fourth grabbed a woman to shield himself. Another passenger instinctively grabbed her away. A commando opened fire at close range, instantly killing the fourth terrorist. Even after the four terrorists were killed, the Commandos took no chances. All passengers and crew were evacuated and told to put their hands on their heads until their identities could be confirmed. For the passengers, the rescue mission happened so quickly that they barely had time to react. The storming had taken a total of four minutes. By 6.54 a.m., passengers began sliding down emergency evacuation chutes from the plane. The hijack was over.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE SQ 117 INCIDENT
The successful resolution of the hijack without the loss of any passenger’s life won Singapore much praise internationally. In a report in Newsweek magazine on 8 Apr 1991, the writer said, "Leave it to Singapore to show the world how to deal with terrorists … None of the 123 passengers and crew aboard were injured, and authorities never even closed the airport … (In future,) terrorists may think twice before hijacking a plane to Singapore." Utusan Malaysia, a leading Malay language newspaper in Malaysia, also hailed the swift action of the SAF Commandos, saying it served as a warning to militant groups using the Republic’s aircraft as ransom for their own gains.
More importantly, the incident shocked Singaporeans out of their complacency that such events could only happen elsewhere. There was an unarticulated belief that such hijacks could never happen in Changi Airport and definitely not on an SQ flight. The Hijack of SQ 117 brought home the message that one must always be prepared for the unforeseeable and unpredictable.
For the first time ever, many Singaporeans also realised that the authorities have in fact made preparations for such emergencies. It is a matter of thorough planning and regular practice. Once the news of the hijack reached the leadership, the Executive Group was immediately activated. This was a high-level crisis management team which included high-ranking ministry officials whose task was to ensure the smooth execution of policies in times of crisis. At the time of the Hijack, the Group was headed by the present PS of Finance, Mr Lim Siong Guan. As a result of the Hijack, Singaporeans also came to know of the existence of the Counter Terrorist Team in SAF. Its preparedness for emergencies has been proven by its efficiency and competence in as shown during the rescue mission. In general, the successful outcome of the rescue mission was the result of the good co-ordination among the different agencies, the constant training of the operational units, and constant readiness for duty and action of the individuals who underwent the regular emergency exercises.
Prof Jayakumar, then Minister for Home Affairs, pinpointed the significance of the Hijack when he said, "Whether it is the Hotel New World, the cable car accident or the SQ 117 rescue operations, one lesson that emerges is that we must be prepared for any such contingency, whether in peace or war time."
The above article was prepared by the National Education Branch(MOE), with the kind assistance of MINDEF.
Photo Credits: MINDEF
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