The prime ministers of Canada and Jamaica heaped praise on Jamaican troops Monday for their handling of a hijacked of Canadian charter flight that ended with the rescue of six crew members and the arrest of a gunman.
Stephen Harper and Bruce Golding spoke as Harper prepared to address a joint sitting of both houses of Jamaica's parliament — the first Canadian prime minister to do so.
Members of the Jamaica Defence Force Counter Terrorism Operations Group stormed CanJet Flight 918 after negotiations with the gunman broke down. The passengers had been released earlier.
"We really are tremendously grateful for the outcome of today's events," Harper said. "What could have been a terrible tragedy I think turned into a tremendous triumph for the professionalism, competence of the Jamaican security forces."
In his welcoming remarks, Golding expressed "our regret at the ordeal which was experienced by 167 Canadian citizens."
"But most of all I want to commend our security forces for the tremendous show of good judgment, professionalism and for the excellent way in which they confronted a challenge and brought it to a successful conclusion, which resulted in not one ounce of blood being shed," he said.
Harper's address was delayed by about 50 minutes because he and Golding were late returning from a meeting with the passengers.
Golding delivered news to the Canadians that Sandals Resorts is offering each passenger and crew member a one-week, all-inclusive holiday at any of its resorts in Jamaica.
Golding gives detailed account of rescue operation
In a telephone interview afterward, Golding gave the CBC program As It Happens a detailed account of the action by security forces at the airport, where he spent the night overseeing negotiations with the gunman.
Golding said fortunately the first officer and another crew member were able to lock themselves in the cockpit and prevent the man from entering. They were subsequently removed from the cockpit and replaced by security team members.
"When day broke, at which time he was expecting that the aircraft would be refuelled and he saw no attempt being made to refuel the aircraft, he became very agitated," Golding said.
"We were able to receive one transmission from one of the [flight] attendants, who indicated that she was now becoming very concerned because of his behaviour and the threats that he was making.
"At that point, the security commandos apprised me that they would need to move to a more aggressive strategy. And they carried out that operation with superb efficiency. It was all over in less than three minutes and not a shot was fired, not a drop of blood was shed."
Golding said the commandos tricked the gunman into coming to the cockpit entrance.
"The information I have is that they pounced so quickly that he didn't know what was happening, and as they grabbed him, he threw away the firearm, and he was subdued," he said.
Golding said the decision to storm the plane was made by security force commanders.
"They are trained. As a matter of fact, the Canadian government assisted us in training them," he said. "They assured me they were confident that they could execute the operation without any loss of life. But there was always a risk, and therefore, we had to weigh that very carefully."
Golding said several authorities have been ordered to carry out immediate investigations into the incident and report to him as soon as possible.
"To whatever extent there have been lapses in the security arrangements, those will be dealt with immediately to ensure we don't have any recurrence of this." he said. "We've never had it before, and I don't want us to ever have it again "
Harper pushes free trade pact
Harper used his speech to Jamaican parliamentarians to argue against protectionism and push for the signing of a free trade agreement between Canada and CARICOM, an organization of 15 Caribbean nations and dependencies.
"As the senior leader of CARICOM and one of Canada's longest standing partners in the Caribbean, Jamaica is uniquely positioned to lead the way to ensure that CARICOM is a full part of the hemispheric and global economic system," he said.
"Let's get it done," Harper said. "It will be good for Jamaicans and it will be good for Canadians. And it will also send a good signal of unity in the Americas."
Harper said he understands there are concerns about proceeding with a free trade agreement when national economies are struggling with the impact of the global recession.
"But there is no time like a crisis to seek new opportunities," he said, adding that Canada is committed to forging a deal that confers benefits on both parties.
"History and experience teach us that mutually beneficial trade expansion is a catalyst for economic growth and social development," Harper said.