- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2000

STANSTED, England Authorities held "fairly calm and businesslike" negotiations over long hours yesterday with apparent Afghan dissidents holding a planeload of at least 150 persons hostage at an airport outside of London.

Officials did not disclose what political demands, if any, the hijackers put forth. But a diplomat familiar with earlier negotiations when the airliner landed in Moscow said those holding the plane sought to free a prisoner held in the Afghan city of Kandahar.

Afghan media speculated the hijackers were dissidents who sought the release of Ismail Khan, a former regional governor who has been held since 1997 by Afghanistan's ruling Taleban movement. Khan is a member of Afghanistan's opposition alliance, which still rules roughly 10 percent of the war-shattered country.

Once in Britain, the hijackers requested only food, water, unspecified medical supplies and that the lavatories on the Afghan state-run Ariana Airlines plane be emptied, said John Broughton, assistant chief constable of the Essex Police.

He characterized the negotiations, conducted in English, as "fairly calm and businesslike" and said authorities were patiently working toward a peaceful solution.

"Negotiations remain our favorite option," said Joe Edwards, another assistant chief constable. "I will say it could be a very protracted technique. It could go on for days."

He said that eight captives released yesterday at Stansted, Britain's designated airport for handling hijackings, "tell us they were very well treated while they were on board."

Earlier yesterday at a news conference in Moscow, one of 10 passengers set free there, Mohammed Bashir Mahal, said there were eight hijackers, and that they appeared to be Afghani because of their language and clothes.

"They were all young around 25 to 30 years old, dressed in traditional Afghan costume and to begin with, they were threatening," he said in Pashtu, the principal language of Afghanistan. "But slowly, their aggression subsided and they treated us quite well. No one was beaten or insulted. Relations were good."

Half of those released in Moscow were old or ailing men and the other half young men, since Afghan tradition calls for every elderly or sick person to be accompanied by a young person, the hostages said.

Russia's NTV television quoted another freed hostage, who wasn't further identified, as saying that passengers did not pass through a metal detector before they boarded the flight. The man said that 20 minutes after the plane took off, he heard a sound and turned around and saw the eight armed hijackers, who calmly asked the passengers to put their hands on their heads.

The Boeing 727 was seized shortly after takeoff early Sunday on a domestic Ariana flight from the Afghan capital, Kabul, to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Before landing early yesterday at Stansted, about 25 miles north of London, the hijackers had freed 22 hostages in return for supplies during earlier stops in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia.

Authorities said they could not confirm the nationalities of what were believed to be 157 hostages remaining on the airliner. They disclosed that one passenger has a serious kidney illness, but said they did not know if that person was among those released.

As night fell, the plane remained parked about half a mile from Stansted's main terminal, which still managed to operate at more than 80 percent capacity Monday.

Mr. Broughton said it wasn't Britain's policy "to allow aircraft to take off again once landed."

Afghanistan's ruling Taleban said it would neither negotiate nor agree to the demands of the hijackers. A statement issued by the religious militia's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, accused the head of an anti-Taleban alliance, Ahmed Shah Massood, of masterminding the hijacking. The Taleban provided no evidence, however.

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