- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 10, 2000

STANSTED, England Officials of Afghanistan's Taleban government said yesterday that a wedding party of at least 35 persons aboard the hijacked Afghan airliner at Stansted Airport is in league with the captors.

Early today, about 85 hostages, including women and children, walked out the back staircase of the hijacked aircraft, the Associated Press reported, raising hopes the crisis may be coming to an end.

The heavily armed hijackers let women and children leave the aircraft first, said Joe Edwards, Essex County police assistant chief constable. The hostages will be taken to a safe location and undergo medical evaluations, he said.

"All those who left are indeed hostages," Mr. Edwards said. "There are still people on board. Negotiations continue," he said. "The negotiations are also at a fairly critical stage."

About 3:30 a.m. local time, the airliner's steps were raised and the latest round of activity died down.

At the ramshackle airports of Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, where the hijack drama began Sunday, several female security workers have been arrested by Taleban authorities, who believe they allowed female passengers to smuggle pistols and grenades on board the plane.

Women, who are heavily veiled, are frisked less thoroughly and there are no airport X-ray machines in Afghanistan.

The allegation was confirmed by Mullah Hamidullah, head of the airline, Ariana.

He said a male flight attendant released in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on Sunday had suggested that there was a large group on the plane who could be involved in an asylum attempt.

The wedding party, which includes women and children, is part of the hijacking gang, Afghan officials in Kabul told the London Daily Telegraph.

Reports from Kabul of links between passengers and hijackers increased speculation that the whole incident was an organized bid for political asylum.

Immigration sources in London said that the hijackers are seeking assurances that they will not be sent home if they surrender.

It was believed that 151 persons were on the plane earlier.

The release of the passengers appeared to be close earlier last night.

Police were establishing a reception center for them at a hotel near the airport, 35 miles northeast of London.

Red Cross officials could be seen arriving with games, books and soft toys for the 21 children who left their homes in Afghanistan four days ago.

There was deepening suspicion that the events of the past four days, might have been part of an elaborate plan to enable the hijackers and their families to escape from the fundamentalist Taleban regime ruling Afghanistan.

Immigration officials said they believed that most of the travelers would be seeking to stay in Britain and confirmed that at least four of those already released had applied for political asylum.

Opposition Conservative parliamentarians warned that Britain was in danger of becoming a "soft target" for those hoping to gain asylum by the threat of force.

Ann Widdecombe, who shadows the home secretary for the opposition Conservatives, said: "There can only be one way to apply for asylum, and that is through the appropriate channels.

"You cannot allow a situation to arise where people believe that they can demand asylum by using force or threatening other people."

However, Britain fears that it could encourage copycat asylum bids should it be seen to take a "soft" line.

The hijackers' peaceful intentions appeared to be confirmed by their show of restraint when four members of the crew escaped through a cockpit window late on Tuesday night.

Negotiators told how the incident had upset the calm they had struggled to establish in what has become Britain's longest hijack.

Those who escaped, using a rope ladder, included the captain, age 54, the second captain, 50, the first officer, 43, and a flight engineer, 54.

Described as "tired, hungry and thirsty," they were allowed to rest before beginning a full debriefing by police.

The escape led to the hijackers tightening their security and resulted in the first sightings of the armed Afghans supervising the loading and unloading of provisions yesterday.

More than four hours after the four jumped from the aircraft, however, the negotiations reached their lowest point when a flight attendant was pushed down the plane's rear steps.

He fell onto the tarmac, suffering minor cuts. Talks broke down for three hours.

Joe Edwards, another assistant chief constable of Essex police, said: "It was the most difficult time so far in the negotiations."

The flight attendant has since applied for political asylum, but the four other crew members have not.

Police said Hope Hanlon, the British representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees who is acting as an observer, had provided "invaluable" advice thanks to her knowledge of Afghanistan.

Her presence has added to speculation that the hijack was a vehicle to claim refugee status.

Negotiators confirmed that they were trying to ascertain how many of the passengers had connections with the hijackers.

Some of the hijackers are believed to have their own family members on board, immigration sources said.

Police said they believed no one competent enough to fly was left on the plane.

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