- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2000

STANSTED, England The Afghan passenger airliner forced by unidentified hijackers on a tense journey across Central Asia and Europe landed at Stansted Airport north of London early today. There have been no reported injuries so far.

The Boeing 727 taxied to a secluded spot on a runway about a half-mile from the main terminal. Police and emergency vehicles assembled nearby.

The Ariana Airlines plane was seized shortly after takeoff yesterday, while on a domestic flight from the Afghan capital, Kabul, to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. The plane made stops in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia before arriving in London just after 2 a.m.

The hijackers have released passengers at each stop: 10 in Uzbekistan, three in Kazakhstan and nine in Moscow.

Local Essex Police Deputy Chief Constable Charles Clark said that negotiators had made contact with the plane. He said he could not confirm the number or identity of the hostage takers, nor anything about demands.

The talks were conducted in English, he said. Constable Clark said the team includes interpreters, but did not reveal what language the interpreters spoke. "Things seem to be calm at this moment" on the plane, he said.

Constable Clark said that as far as police can tell, there are 140 people on the plane, including the hijackers and crew.

"Our policing priority is clearly and will remain clearly the safe release of everybody on that aircraft," Constable Clark said.

Kim White, a spokeswoman for the Essex police department, said authorities are well prepared for hijackings.

"We have a contingency plan which we regularly practice for these types of events and have dealt with hijacks at Stansted in the past," Miss White told the British Broadcasting Corp. "So we are very well prepared for this type of event and hope to open up peaceful negotiations very shortly."

When planes have been hijacked and crews have been ordered to land in Britain, it has become routine to route them to Stansted, 38 miles north of London. Planes can be kept well away from the terminal building and other aircraft while negotiations can be carried on with the hijackers.

The identity of the hijackers is not clear. A diplomat familiar with the negotiations with the hijackers while the plane was in Moscow said they were seeking the release of a prisoner from the Afghan city of Kandahar.

The hijackers made no political demands in Moscow, Russian security service spokesman Alexander Zdanovich told reporters at Sheremetyevo-1 airport. He said the hijackers had asked only for food, for the plane's toilets to be cleaned and for refueling while in Moscow.

None of the people aboard the Boeing 727 belonging to Afghanistan's Ariana Airlines had been harmed, Mr. Zdanovich said, although it remained unclear how many people were aboard. Russian news reports said there were 131 passengers and nine crew before the release in Moscow, but other sources said there were as many as 160 aboard.

The passengers included 20 women and 23 or 24 children, said Mr. Zdanovich. All the passengers released in Moscow were male.

The plane landed in Moscow about 9:20 p.m. yesterday. Trucks and buses loaded with elite commando teams, police and rescue workers converged on the airport.

Sniper teams moved into Sheremetyevo-1, the terminal where the plane landed, and security was heavy in the area. Afghan diplomats arrived at the airport about 90 minutes after the plane landed and Russian news agencies said they were in negotiations with the hijackers.

An emergency official in Kazakhstan, where the plane landed before heading to Moscow yesterday morning, said there were 20 hijackers aboard the Boeing 727, but three passengers who were released in Kazakhstan said eight to 10 hijackers were aboard.

Ten passengers were released in Uzbekistan, the hijacked plane's first stop, according to an Afghan opposition spokesman, identified only as Abdullah. A further three were released in Kazakhstan.

The hijacking comes six weeks after an eight-day hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane ended peacefully in southern Afghanistan. The hijackers in that case freed their hostages after India released three pro-Kashmiri militants from jail.

Abdullah denied that the Afghan opposition was responsible for the latest hijacking, saying, "We condemn any act of terrorism."

Afghan media earlier had speculated that the hijackers wanted the release of opposition figure Ismail Khan, a former regional governor who has been held since 1997 by Afghanistan's ruling Taleban movement. He reportedly is being held in Kandahar.

Russia does not recognize the Taleban and the Afghan diplomats in Russia have ties to the opposition.

After being seized over Afghanistan yesterday morning, the Afghan plane was flown to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and then landed in the northern Kazakh city of Aktyubinsk because of a leak in its right fuel tank, the Kazakh spokesman said. It was not immediately known whether the leak was fixed.

The Afghan state-run airline is under international sanctions and is not permitted to fly international routes.

Ariana has four aging Boeing 727 aircraft and five Russian-made Antonov aircraft. Maintenance conditions are considered extremely poor in the country, which is bankrupt and has been battered by more than 20 years of war. The Taleban, who rule 90 percent of Afghanistan, are fighting their northern-based enemies on several fronts.

The United Nations imposed sanctions against Afghanistan's state-owned airline in November to punish the ruling Taleban movement for its refusal to extradite suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden, who has been living in Afghanistan for the past few years.

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