WASHINGTON — A pledge by Kuwait to give "early release" to a handful of Shia Muslim prisoners persuaded the hijackers of a Kuwait Airways Boeing 747 to end their 15-day siege in Algiers on April 20, and free 31 remaining hostages, U.S. officials said Friday.
However, the five or six prisoners in question, among 17 imprisoned in Kuwait for bomb attacks on the U.S. and French embassies in 1981, have not been released, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The officials said that Algeria, in diplomatic contacts with the United States, said Algerian intermediaries faithfully conveyed Kuwait's promise to the hijackers. But Kuwait, which has a firm policy of not yielding to terrorism, may never have intended letting the prisoners go, the officials said.
The officials also said that the hijackers--believed to number eight or nine--were still in Algeria, despite a statement Thursday by Mohammed Sahnoun, the Algerian ambassador to Washington, that they had left the country without getting what they wanted and without concessions made to obtain the release of the 31 hostages.
Another U.S. official, interviewed separately, said Syria had assured the United States that despite reports to the contrary, the hijackers had not been flown from Algeria to Damascus. Reports from Algiers had said the terrorists, who were promised safe passage, were flown to Damascus, from where they made their way by land to Lebanon.
The plane, with 112 passengers and crew members, was hijacked April 5 on a flight from Thailand to Kuwait and spent several days in Mashhad, Iran, and Larnaca, Cyprus, where two Kuwaiti passengers were killed, before flying to Algiers.
The hijackers' principal demand was the release of the 17 prisoners in Kuwait.