Warning in French foils Arab-speaking hijacker

By Juan Manuel Pardellas

February 17, 2007

SANTA CRUZ DE TENERIFE, Canary Islands – A cunning pilot thwarted a hijacking by discreetly warning the passengers in French – a language the gunman didn't understand – that he would knock the attacker off-balance with a rough landing, and that they should be ready to pounce.

The ploy worked.

As Capt. Ahmedou Mohamed Lemine landed the Air Mauritania Boeing 737, he slammed on the brakes, then abruptly accelerated, throwing the hijacker to the floor, officials said yesterday. The forewarned passengers and crew threw boiling water from a coffee maker on the man's face and chest, then beat him into submission.

“The man deserves a medal,” Air Mauritania spokesman Ahmedou Ahmedou said of Lemine, a 20-year veteran of the airline, after the ordeal ended Thursday evening.

Brandishing two 7-mm pistols, the lone attacker had hijacked the Boeing 737, carrying 71 passengers and a crew of eight, shortly after it took off from the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott. The flight was headed for Gran Canaria, one of Spain's Canary Islands, with a stopover planned in Nouadhibou in northern Mauritania.

He wanted to go to France so that he could request political asylum, said Mohamed Ould Mohamed Cheikh, Mauritania's top police official.

The hijacker was identified as Mohamed Abderraman, a 32-year-old Mauritanian, said an official with the Spanish Interior Ministry office on Tenerife, another of the islands in the Atlantic archipelago. Mauritania has said the hijacker was a Moroccan from the Western Sahara.

The crew told the hijacker, who spoke Arabic, that there was not enough fuel to fly to France. In addition, Morocco denied a request for the plane to land in Djala in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, so Lemine headed for Las Palmas in Gran Canaria, the flight's original destination.

“We were afraid. We thought it was people from al-Qaeda or the Algerian GSPC who were going to cut our throats,” said Aicha Mint Sidi, a 45-year-old passenger, referring to a Muslim extremist group.

While talking to the gunman, Lemine realized the hijacker did not understand French.

The 50-year-old captain used the plane's public address system to tip off passengers in French about his plan to throw the hijacker off-balance so the flight crew and about 10 passengers in the front rows could subdue him, the Spanish official said. About 20 people were slightly injured when the plane braked suddenly, the official said.