Afghan hijackers step up demands
BY ADRIAN LEE AND DANIEL McGRORY
The Sunday Times UK
THE Afghan gunmen holding an aircraft on the runway at Stansted Airport intensified their demands last night to include immunity from prosecution before they surrender.
The eight-strong gang on the Ariana 727 jet is also insisting that they be allowed to set up a political opposition group to the Taleban regime, based in London.
Earlier they told negotiators that they wanted a guarantee of asylum for themselves and their families before they would release their hostages.
The demands came as investigators realised that up to a third of the 151 passengers and crew still on the plane are related or linked to the gunmen. They are prominent opponents of the hardline Islamic rulers in Kabul.
Police now believe that the hijack was expertly planned and orchestrated with the specific intention of reaching the West. London was their first choice, and if they were refused permission to land here they would have headed for Frankfurt.
The leaders of the hijack are described as "well educated, calm and persistent". They are known to speak several languages, including English. They made sure they could get their close family and associates on board by using the cover of a wedding party because they realised that their families would have been in danger of reprisals had they been left behind.
Taleban authorities yesterday rounded up female security staff at Kabul airport who they believe took bribes not to search female passengers on the hijack flight. The passengers are thought to have had weapons under their clothes.
It became clear yesterday that after the crew escaped from the Ariana Boeing 727, police came close to losing control of the situation. Negotiators and the Afghan hijackers were involved in furious exchanges, with the gunmen screaming at police and, at one stage, breaking off discussions for more than an hour.
"It was obviously very tense," Assistant Chief Constable John Broughton said. "You have to remember that the hijackers themselves are tired. There was shouting. There was a degree of frustration over what had happened."
The negotiators were eventually able to restore calm by drawing on the trust they had established in hours of painstaking discussions.
The aircraft's 54-year-old captain, who jumped from the cockpit with three other members of the flight crew, telephoned the company's president in Kabul yesterday and told him that he believed that the hijackers' sole intention was to flee Afghanistan. The one political demand, for the release of a jailed opposition figure, was a ploy to get the jet diverted to the West.
A fifth crew member, a steward who was seen falling down the back steps of the aircraft, became the latest hostage to seek asylum. Three of those freed earlier were talking to Home Office officials yesterday about their claims for refugee status.
The Ariana captain said that he thought the hijackers were losing heart and wanted to get their families, particularly their children, off the plane as soon as possible.
The arrival at Stansted of Hope Hanlan, the British representative of the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, will bolster the hijackers' belief that they will get their asylum status. Police described the UN official's contribution as invaluable.
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