It was about 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 25 when Royal Swazi Airlines' Fokker F28 jet landed at the Pointe Laure International Airport on the main island of Mahe in the Seychelles.
Most of the passengers, a rambunctious group of men ostensibly on vacation, quickly passed through the "nothing to declare" customs channel and got onto tourist buses. All except one. South African Johan Fritz, for some reason, went into the "to declare" customs line, and when he opened his suitcase, the inspector found a gun.
The "tourists," who were actually mercenaries intending to stage a coup, were prematurely forced into action. There was a brief shootout with airport police in which Fritz was killed. Roadblocks were set up by the mercenaries, who rounded up airport personnel and tourists.
One of the first targets of the mercenaries was the Army barracks a mile away. Four men got into a small car, and about 10 piled into a station wagon. Seychelles Information Minister James Michel said in an interview he believes Mike Hoare, leader of the mercenaries, was in the first car because a briefcase with his passport, altered so that his name read "Boarel" and his occupation listed as "chartered accountant with Air India in Calcutta" was found inside.
One mercenary interviewed in South Africa said that American Charles Dukes, who was one of the eight-member team sent to Seychelles in advance of the other mercenaries, was also in the first car. This is probably when Dukes, now in South Africa, was wounded.
On the way to the barracks the mercenaries shot at a small camp of Tanzanian soldiers, killing one, according to a diplomatic source. The Tranzanians fired at the station wagon, forcing it to turn back. At the barracks, the first group of four men got such resistance when they attacked that they fled on foot, one of the mercenaries said.
"It's a key fact that the Army and police shot back," said one resident Western diplomat. "The Army was loyal to President France Albert Rene; within minutes of the airport fighting, there were roadblocks up downtown, the island was sealed off, ministers were in hiding and the people's militia was being assigned to zones over the radio," the diplomat said.
Early on, the mercenaries apparently decided on a hasty retreat. They telephoned the pilot of the Royal Swazi plane that had brought them in and asked him to inform the government that a coup attempt had failed and to get their permission to fly them out. He refused.
But an Air India Boeing 707 jet, en route from Salisbury to Bombay with 79 persons on board, was due to stop for refueling at Seychelles at 10 p.m. Maurice Loustau Lalanne, 26, director of civil aviation, pleaded with the mercenaries to let him divert the plane.
"They refused," Lalanne recalled in an interview.
At about 7 p.m. in the control tower Lalanne and some of the mercenaries could see two vehicles come onto the other end of the runway. Realizing their exposed position and fearing an attack, some of the mercenaries fled the tower. As tension mounted, "I dived under a table," Lalanne said.
When the firing began, the mercenaries fired back at first, but eventually all fled the tower, leaving Lalanne behind.
For two hours Lalanne, left alone, put through calls to various officials asking them to hold their fire.
About 9:30 p.m. some mercenaries returned, calling solicitously, "Maurice, are you all right?"
He was. By then, Umesh Saxena, the Air India pilot, was calling the tower.
Despite their tactical advantage, the authorities were in a dilemma, according to Michel, who is also chief of staff of the Army. "We wanted to shoot the plane down because we were not sure if there were only passengers on board or if there were more mercenaries. But we wanted to prevent the loss of life. Especially if tourists were hurt, it would have harmed our tourist trade."
As the plane was coming in, rocket flares sent up by the Seychellois to warn Saxena not to land were launched and, according to Lalanne, "The local Army was shelling very hard." Why Saxena landed despite this is "a mystery," Michel said.
After landing, Saxena was curtly told to shut off his lights and taxi to the apron, where three armed men came on board and took him and his copilot to the terminal. Saxena told the Indian newspaper, Sunday Statesman, that he was taken to the "leader" of the group who told him that "unfortunately" the plane had landed at a "wrong time" and warned him to follow orders or "face the consequences."
Saxena said he was eager to get out of what he believed was a "revolution." He agreed to the mercenaries' request to be taken on board. At first, they said they wanted to go to Oman, and then suggested Switzerland, but when Saxena said he did not know that country very well, they decided on South Africa.
Hoare got on the phone again and spoke with Seychelles Police Commissioner James Pillay, to discuss the plane's takeoff, without, however, telling Pillay that the mercenaries would be on it.
By now, "the mercenaries were restless, some of them were bleeding, their luggage was strewn all about," Lalanne said.
Out of sight of the hostages in the traffic office, the mercenaries boarded the plane carrying Fritz's body. An airport employe said he was escorted out to the plane by Hoare who pointed to three mercenaries standing off to one side. Hoare warned him that they would be staying behind and would shoot the hostages if they tried to phone the police or stop the plane from taking off. It was then about 2 a.m.
On board, the mercenaries offered to buy drinks for the stunned passengers. "You saved our lives," one of them said to a passenger. One mercenary sat in the cockpit to make sure Saxena flew to South Africa.
At Durban, all of the mercenary band but Hoare and four others, who were charged with kidnaping and set free on bail, were released. Only after an international outcry did Pretoria charge all the raiders with the more serious offense of hijacking. The mercenaries insisted, however, that they were not air pirates--but heroes who "saved the lives of those Air India passengers." They pointed out that the Royal Swazi jet received two direct hits from rocket-propelled grenades fired by Seychelles defense forces.
Back in the Seychelles, the authorities did not know how many mercenaries had left and how many had stayed. To be safe, they attacked the airport at dawn, directing their fire away from the rooms where the hostages were waiting.
When the night was over, three persons were dead: one mercenary, one Tanzanian soldier and one Seychelles soldier.
The Seychelles authorities began rounding up those left behind. Among them was Susan Ingles, Hoare's sister-in-law, who had arrived before the coup attempt. In all, seven persons were captured.