Afghan plane hijack a bid for asylum?

LONDON, FEB. 9. The pilot and other three other crew members of the hijacked Afghan Airlines jet at Stansted airport escaped by climbing out of a cockpit window early on Wednesday morning, effectively ensuring that the Boeing 727 aircraft would not be able to leave London in a hurry. After the hijackers discovered that the flying crew had disappeared, they angrily pushed one of the remaining crew members, a steward, out of the plane.

As the hijacking drama entered the fourth day, the armed men on board had not yet made any political demand, giving rise to speculation that the aim of the hijacking was in fact to seek asylum in Britain. ``No specific demands beyond house- keeping requirements have been made, incredible as it may seem,'' Mr. John Broughton, a senior police officer said.

Under British law, the hijackers would be prosecuted for hijacking and face jail terms here. But after they finish their sentences, it is unlikely that they will be sent back to face the justice of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Britain does not recognise the Taliban Government and has supported international attempts to isolate the regime. The British authorities would find it difficult to send the hijackers to a regime which it strongly disapproves of.

There is a precedent for hijackers staying on in Britain. Six Iraqis who hijacked a Sudanese airliner to Stansted airport in 1996, said they were fleeing from Saddam Hussein's regime and claimed asylum. There are unconfirmed reports that some of the hostages who were released earlier by the hijackers have asked for asylum. The lawyer who represented the Iraqis, Ms. Eman Omar, said it was ``highly likely'' that the Afghan hijackers were seeking asylum.

The head of the Ariana, the Aghan airline, also speculated that the motive of the hijacking was to seek asylum. Mullah Hamidullah was quoted as saying that several of the passengers came form the same family. ``It seems now that there is a big group, including about 40 women, men and children on board who were travelling to Mazar-i-Sharif pretending to attend a wedding there and they are linked to this hijacking.'' He added that ``it is possible that these people are interested in going to London''.

Negotiations between the British police and the hijackers suffered a setback with the escape of the pilot and other crew members. The 54-year-old pilot, a 50-year-old second captain, a 43-year-old first officer and a 54-year-old flight engineer, broke open a cockpit window and used ropes to lower themselves to the ground. They were taken for medical checks, and then debriefed by the police. An airline steward was later pushed out of the aircraft by the hijackers.

Police negotiators said that communication with the hijackers stopped temporarily after this. ``After that perhaps understandably things went quiet. They stopped talking to us for an hour,'' a police official said.

An official from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has also joined the negotiating team at the airport, increasing the possibility that those on board the aircraft were seeking refugee status. The unamed woman official was described as being knowledgeable about Afghanistan.

PTI reports from Islamabad:

The Taliban regime has arrested three alleged accomplices of the hijackers of the Afghan plane, including a former woman diplomat, an Urdu daily has said. The trio is being investigated and all details are being kept secret, the report added.

Meanwhile, the plane crew's decision to flee the stranded aircraft has sparked outrage on the international pilots' unofficial website.

Contributors to the ``professional pilots rumour network'' - an informal chatline with its own website - were blunt in their condemnation after the four-man crew escaped through a window in the plane's cockpit.

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