Asylum row hits hostage return
A jet to take home the ex-hostages from the hijacked Afghan airliner has landed in the UK - but controversy still rages over the 74 passengers claiming political asylum.
A Downing Street spokesman said the plane was due to leave possibly later on Saturday, but that could be delayed pending further police investigations.
The spokesman could not say how many would be on board, but said Essex Police were still working to separate those complicit in the hijack from innocent hostages.
The number of arrests in connection with the hijack so far stands at 22, but it could rise. Essex police are questioning a further 17 people, fuelling widespread speculation that some of the passengers colluded with the hijackers in an attempt to seek mass asylum.
br clear=all> The plane stood at Stansted airport in Essex for four days before the crisis ended with the hijackers' surrender.
It is believed only 32 ex-hostages want to return home on the charter plane, which has landed at RAF Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire. There are reports that some or all of the remaining 90 may also apply.
Groups representing refugees and asylum-seekers have called on Home Secretary Jack Straw not to deport the 60 adults and 14 children wanting to stay in the UK.
But Mr Straw said on Thursday he wanted to see all 150 people who were on board the Ariana Boeing 727 removed from the country "as soon as is practicably possible".
A special "fast-track" procedure is to be used in the hope that all the passengers could be returned to Afghanistan or to an alternative third country, Mr Straw announced.
But refugee agencies have warned it could take many months before each case is decided.
The Refugee Council's chief executive Nick Hardwick said those involved in the hijack should face serious charges. But he added their relatives risked facing death if they returned to Afghanistan, whose Taleban government is widely condemned for its human rights record.
"The truth is this is a desperate act by desperate men, desperate to get their families to safety," he said.
The news comes as a senior Taleban leader announced the hijackers of the airliner face execution if they return home.
General Rahmatullah Safi, who was at the airport throughout the negotiations to end the hijacking, said those involved must be punished, either in a British or an Afghan court.
If they were returned to Kabul, he said, they would be tried under strict Islamic (Sharia) law - and if found guilty they would be sentenced to death.
The former hostages, having undergone initial health and security checks, spent Thursday night at the four-star Hilton Hotel but are expected to be transferred to "more secure locations" on Friday.
The passengers began their ordeal on Sunday during an internal flight in Afghanistan. The plane was subsequently flown across Central Asia and Russia before landing at Stansted early on Monday.
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