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COMMANDOS’ TENSE RAID AVERTED GREATER RISKS

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Their 5 p.m. deadline to get fuel for a flight to Paris expired. Two bursts of gunfire came from the jetliner, one bullet shattering the control tower with negotiators inside.

"You will pay. Three minutes more and inshallah (God willing)," the hijackers' leader radioed."We had a terrible fear," said Alain Gehin, a chief negotiator.

Inside, in the hour building up to the final standoff Monday, the four hijackers built bombs with sticks of dynamite and held Muslim death prayers.

The pilot and co-pilot were locked up with the four hijackers in the cockpit.

At 5:15 p.m., 54 hours after the ordeal began in Algeria, French commandos stormed the shining white Air France plane by running up the stairs, unlocking the right front door near the cockpit and wrestling it open. They tossed in grenades and fired inside as passengers ducked under their blue seats.

"We met blood, tears and death," said Denis Favier, the head of the commando team. "The risks averted an even greater drama."

Favier said the team applied an emergency plan that had been rehearsed 20 times. But there was one big variable: "It was difficult to know exactly where the terrorists were."

"We entered the plane at three points, working from front to back and back to front," he said. "When we first went in, we didn't see much. We just heard some passengers screaming."

The team coming in at the front took the brunt of the resistance since the hijackers were holed up in the cockpit of the wide-body Airbus A-300.

There was no explanation as to why the hijackers all took to the cockpit, which might have made it easier for authorities to target them. Some passengers said the terrorists rushed to the cockpit right after firing shots at the control tower, apparently expecting some kind of final assault by the French.

"As soon as we got in the door, we were hit by fire and grenade blasts," Favier told reporters. "Six of our eight men there were wounded."

The gunmen prevented any movement on the plane by firing through the partition between the cockpit and cabin, Favier said.

"They opened and closed the door and threw grenades each time."

There were four minutes of intense gunfire. But the only ones to die in the firefight involving hundreds of rounds of ammunition were the four hijackers.

Meanwhile, a team of commandos whisked the hostages from the plane and the co-pilot jumped out the window.

"First I dropped down," said one passenger who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I heard the bullets over my head. Then they said, `Get up! Get out!' So I crawled out. Then I heard more shots."

Many passengers fear reprisals when they return to Algeria, so they declined to give their names in several interviews.

"We could hardly see because of the smoke and it was getting dark," said passenger Lahlou Saigh, 69, adding he tried to stay calm.

"I even carried my bag with me when I went out."

A passenger who only identified himself as Abassi was not as serene.

"The gunfire was coming from all directions. I ran all the way to the terminal and looked around me. I saw that my three brothers were alive and I thanked God."

When the smoke cleared, nine commandos and three crew members, including the pilot, were wounded. Thirteen passengers suffered scrapes, cuts and bruises.

The raid was seen as one of the most successful anti-terrorist operations in aviation history.

"We expected death. We were waiting for the explosion," Ali Kalak, an Algerian passenger, told Associated Press Television Tuesday. "We never thought there would be such a successful intervention."

Before the hijackers themselves were killed, they had executed three passengers after seizing the plane in Algeria on Saturday as it prepared to leave for Paris.