Hijacking of Singapore Airlines Flight SQ 117
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On 26 March 1991, Singapore Airlines Flight SQ117 was hijacked at 10:15 pm. The Airbus, carrying 118 passengers and eleven crew members, was a shuttle service from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. Four passengers, who claimed they were members of the Pakistan People's Party, commandeered the plane during the flight.
26 March 1991 (Tuesday)
9:15 pm : Flight SQ117 departed Kuala Lumpur for Singapore. Within minutes, four men, who were passengers on the flight, took control of the plane. They were reportedly armed with explosives and knives.
10:15 pm : The plane touched down at Changi International Airport and was immediately surrounded by police officers including crack troopers from the Police Tactical Team. At the same time, hostage negotiators, assisted by a crisis management team from the Ministries of Defence and Home Affairs, swung into action. The four hijackers, who claimed to be members of the Pakistan People's Party, issued a list of demands.
27 March 1991 (Wednesday)
2:40 am : The Airbus was towed from Runway One to an apron near the VIP Complex. Two Singapore Airlines (SIA) crew members were thrown out of the plane, sustaining bruises and minor injuries. They provided critical information that helped overcome the hijackers later.
3:25 am : A government statement listed the hijackers' demands:
- to release nine prisoners detained in Pakistan, including Asif Ali Zadori, the husband of Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan;
- to talk to the Pakistani Ambassador to Singapore;
- to refuel the plane to fly to Australia
5:00 am : The area in the vicinity of the plane was cordoned off and darkened as lights around the airport police station were turned off. Journalists and photographers were told to leave.
6:45 am : The hijackers issued a 5-minute deadline, beyond which they threatened to kill one passenger every 10 minutes if their demands were not met.
6:47 am : With only three minutes to the deadline, the order was given to storm the plane.
6:50 am : A crack team of Singapore Armed Forces Commandos stormed the plane and mounted a swift rescue operation. All four hijackers were shot dead. The other passengers and crew were left unharmed.
6:54 am : Passengers began sliding down emergency evacuation chutes and were taken to a holding area to the right of the field. They were later driven to the Airport Terminal in three buses.
7:50 am : The Second Defence Minister, Dr Yeo Ning Hong and the Minister for Home Affairs, Professor S. Jayakumar held a press conference to announce the success of the rescue operation.
The Asian Wall Street Journal of 28 March 1991 wrote that the hijacking incident at Changi International Airport
- jarred security-conscious Singapore as it was the first hijacking of a Singapore Airlines plane and the first such incident at Changi International Airport since the former air force base was rebuilt for civilian use in 1981;
- raised questions about security in Kuala Lumpur where the hijackers managed to get their weapons past airport detectors;
- triggered a new round of recrimination between rival political factions in Pakistan. In Karachi, a denial of any links with the hijackers was issued by the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto. However, Pakistan's Interior Minister, Shujaat Hussain asserted that there was only one organisation working for the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and that was Al Zulkifar. A countercharge was made by the PPP that claims of a link was a government-inspired attempt to defame Ms Bhutto's organisation
The Public Service Star award was given to Supt Foo Kia Juah, the leader of the police negotiating team and to Captain Stanley Lim, the pilot of SQ 117.
Both the Straits Times of 28 March 1991 and the Bangkok Post of 3 March 1991carried articles on Al Zulkifar, which means "The Sword". It was founded in Kabul in 1980 by Ms Bhutto's brothers, Murtaza and Shahnawaz, and named after their father Zulkifar Ali Bhutto, who was overthrown as Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1977and hanged 2 years later. Shahnawaz died from poisoning in France in 1985 and, according to the government of Pakistan, the group was then headed by Murtaza who lived in exile in Europe and Damascus.
The Pakistani government revealed that Murtaza Bhutto went personally to the Kabul airport to greet the hijackers of a Pakistan Airlines plane when it landed there on 16 February 1981. The hijackers killed one passenger to secure the release of 53 prisoners from Pakistani prisons, all of them activists of Ms Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party.
Besides Asif Ali Zadori, the husband of Ms Bhutto, one of the 1981hijackers, Senator Mansoor Ahsan, was included among several Pakistani prisoners whom the hijackers of SQ117 wanted released.
Tan Lay Yuen
Bilveer Singh. (1991). Skyjacking of SQ 117: Causes, course and consequences. Singapore: Crescent Design Associates.
(Call no.: RSING 364.154095957 BIL)
Tan, S. (1991). Hijack! : SQ 117 - the untold story. Singapore: Heinemann Asia.
(Call no.: SING 364.154095957 TAN)
Blood-soaked seats and bullet-ridden fuselage. (1991, March 28). The Straits Times, p. 4.
Chronology of events: Reporter's log. (1991, March 28). The Straits Times, p. 28.
Hijack! but passengers thought it was a joke. (1991, March 28). The Straits Times, p. 4.
'Heads down! Heads down!' as men in black rush in. (1991, March 28). The Straits Times, p. 4.
Lightning raid draws praise and admiration. (1991, March 28). The Straits Times, p. 5.
Choy, C. K. (1991). 1991 - SQ 117 Rescue. Retrieved December 30, 2004, from iMindef Web site: www.mindef.gov.sg/index2.asp?cat=histdisp&id=18
A denial: 'We are not linked at all with the hijacking.' - former Pakistani Prime Minister,Benazir Bhutto. (1991, March 28). The Straits Times, p. 8.
Hijacker took part in hijack 10 years ago, say hostages. (1991, March 28). The Straits Times, p. 8.
Hijacker tried to use woman as human shield. (1991, March 28). The Straits Times, p. 2.
2 stewards pushed out of the plane. (1991, March 28). The Straits Times, p. 9.
List of Images
Dead on target: swift and deadly...how the rescue was carried out. (1991, March 28). The Straits Times, p. 2.
It's all over! (1991, March 28). The Straits Times, p. 3.
The information in this article is valid as at 1999 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Politics and Government>>National Security
Hijacking of aircraft--Singapore
Singapore Airlines Flight SQ 117 Hijacking Incident, 1991
People and communities>>Social conflict>>Terrorism
Law and government>>Security