An Egyptian military commando unit tonight stormed a hijacked Egyptair jetliner with more than 80 persons on board here, triggering a grenade and gun battle that set the aircraft on fire and killed 57 passengers and hijackers.

The rescue attempt came after the Egyptian Boeing 737's hijackers apparently had begun selecting women passengers for execution to press their demand that the plane be refueled and allowed to fly on. The aircraft, on a flight from Athens to Cairo, was diverted last night after a midair shootout.

Prime Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici decided to "give permission to [Egyptian troops] to storm the plane because the situation was out of hand," said Paul Mifsud, the Maltese government spokesman. The Egyptian troops had been flown here early this morning in a camouflage-painted Egyptian Air Force C130.

Before the troops could storm the plane, at least four women and possibly five -- one or two apparently American and two Israeli -- were taken separately from their seats, their hands tied behind their backs, then shot point-blank in the head with a small-caliber before they were dumped out of the airplane onto the tarmac, according to Paul Mifsud.

Maltese police officials at the scene, said 57 persons including eight children, had died on the plane. All but one or two died after the rescue operation began. They said five bodies where still on the plane, which was still too hot for firemen to enter.

Capt. Hani Galal, the 39-year-old pilot of the Egyptian airliner, said that after the third woman was shot, "I was prepared to do anything to prevent more killings -- especially killings like these in cold blood."

"I heard the victims asking for mercy. They were sitting there waiting for execution," Galal said at a news conference shortly after midnight. " Galal said the aircraft was the same one that carried Palestinian hijackers of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro out of Egypt last month and was intercepted by U.S. military planes in the night skies over the Mediterranean.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman said two of the three U.S. citizens aboard the plane had been wounded but would not confirm that an American had been killed.

Joel Levy, the deputy U.S. Embassy chief in Malta, told reporters that one of the three Americans had been killed.

Greek security police in Athens identified the American passengers as Scarlett Rogenkams, 38, of Los Angeles; Jackie Nink, 30, of Texas, and Patrick Scott Baker, 28, of White Salmon, Wash.

The State Department issued a statement supporting the storming of the plane. Earlier, U.S. officials had assured Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that the United States would prevent Libya from interfering in any action against the plane. Egypt put its military on alert amid suspicions that Libya had a role in the hijacking.

The plane left Athens with 87 passengers, 6 crew and 4 Egyptian security guards.

Immediately after the decision to storm the plane was made by the prime minister at about 8 p.m. tonight (2 p.m. EDT), a still undetermined number of Egyptian commandos crept up to the plane after the airport and runway lights were turned off.

They entered the plane through a cargo door, blew a hole into the passenger compartment and came up from the cargo hold firing automatic weapons at the Arab hijackers, who the government said numbered four or five.

"As soon as the hijackers realized what was happening, they threw three hand grenades at the passengers," spokesman Mifsud said. "The grenades set off a fire, which swept through the aircraft."

About 30 of the 80 passengers and crewmen still on board at the time were "taken out before the aircraft completely caught fire," the spokesman said.

Galal said he avoided being shot in the cockpit by the hijackers' leader, who called himself Nabil, when the attack on the aircraft began tonight at 8:30 p.m. Galal said that after a bullet from the hijacker's pistol grazed his head, he buried a fire ax in the hijacker's head.

"I hit him with the ax," Galal told reporters, a bandage on his forehead, where the bullet had grazed his temple. "He didn't see the ax coming until the last moment. It did not kill him outright. He was down but still moving. Then I left the plane, and I believe the soldiers finished him off."

Galal said the hijacker was "not touched by the killings." He said of the hijackers' leader, "He was making jokes after each passenger shooting."

Galal praised the rescue effort, saying, "I think the storming operation was very, very well conducted. But we were not lucky. We are lucky to save about 26."

He said the hijackers were "very desperate, bloody people. I think with such people we need to take no chances."

Galal had been kept in his seat for 22 hours with a gun to his head while the hijackers communicated with Prime Minister Bonnici through an air controller.

During a moment of inattention by the hijacker, Galal had managed to conveye a message by radio indicating that the hijackers had secured the doors of the plane from the inside.

During the ordeal, Galal pleaded with airport officials by radio to cooperate with the hijackers to save passengers' lives. In a tape of the coversation broadcast by ABC News, Galal spoke of the shooting of an American woman and said:

"He is killing her now, so, say again, say, do something, he is killing her now . . . . He is outside shooting her now. I am the captain, you are wasting life, you are wasting life. He is killing her, he has killed her already, and in a few minutes he will kill another one."

Galal said that he knew of four hijackers and suspected there was a fifth. He said that the hijackers had identified themselves as members of the "Revolutionary Force of Egypt" but that from their Arabic accents he thought four were Palestinians and the fifth "most probably Syrian."

During the storming of the plane, one Egyptian soldier had his left leg blown off below the knee by a grenade, Mifsud said at a news conference held at this small Mediterranean island nation's Luqa International Airport.

"Obviously, we are very sorry for the way things went," he said, "but we think there was no alternative to storming the plane."

He said that Galal agreed that things had gotten so bad that a forced rescue was the only solution. Galal, Mifsud said, had told him that "everytime one of the hijackers killed someone, he went through the aircraft dancing and singing and that the captain realized then he was a madman."

The Maltese government sought to dissociate itself from the Egyptian military operation, declaring that from the moment the decision to attempt the forced rescue was made by the Maltese government, the operation was wholly Egyptian.

"The Egyptian government asked the Maltese authorities to [allow it to] take charge of the situation" after the hijacking of Egyptair's flight 648 from Athens to Cairo last night, the Maltese spokesman said. "The [Maltese government] agreed."

"And from then, the moment it was agreed to storm the aircraft, it was completely their the Egyptians' responsibility," Mifsud said.

Throughout the ordeal the prime minister and other Cabinet officials were monitoring the situation from the control tower, and sources indicated that the envoys of France, Israel, Egypt and the Palestine Liberation Organization also were present.

The casualty toll of 57 makes it one of the bloodiest conclusions to a hijacking on record. An attempt by Egyptian commandos to storm an airliner hijacked by Palestinians at Larnaca Airport in Cyprus in 1978, led to a pitched battle on the tarmac with the Cypriot National Guard in which 15 of the Egyptians were killed.

Egyptian state television announced today that the commandos had stormed the airliner and saved hostages, but did not mention that more than 50 persons aboard were killed.

In the United States, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who urged that "no quarter" be given to the hijackers said in a television appearance that the Libyan ambassador had been in touch with the aircraft.

The Egyptian airliner was forced to make an emergency landing here at 10:16 last night on a runway darkened because of the Maltese government's refusal to give landing permisssion.

The aircraft had to land here because it appears to have been damaged in a midair shootout over the Mediterranean that began when an Egyptian security guard shot one of the hijackers believed to be their leader, as he sought to collect passengers' passports and frisked them for weapons.

The Egyptian security guard was in turn wounded by one of the hijackers although he was later released with four other wounded passengers so he could be treated at St. Luke's Hospital.

Passengers who were among nine women released early this morning by the hijackers at the request of the Maltese prime minister, spoke today of the aircraft's automatic oxygen masks dropping into their laps after the shootout in the air -- a sign the aircraft's pressure had dropped alarmingly.

Relatives of American passenger Nink said that she had been shot and was in surgery in St. Luke's Hospital on Malta.

Nink is a special education teacher at the Cairo American College. She was on her way back from a weekend in Athens.

Her husband, Scott Pflug, who also teaches at the school, was coaching a volleyball team at a tournament in Athens and was not on the plane