Asian students forced to deny airline mutiny was a set-up

During the terror alert, they provided a headline-writer's dream: two Asian men removed from a holiday flight to Britain after a "mutiny" from fellow passengers convinced they were Islamic terrorists.

The story of Sohail Ashraf and Khurram Zeb did not end on the runway of Malaga's airport, though.

Yesterday, the 22-year-old students were forced to deny being involved in an elaborate publicity stunt.

In a series of media interviews, the pair were accused of deliberately behaving suspiciously in order to be ejected from Monarch Airlines flight ZB613 to Manchester last Wednesday, a charge they deny.

Asked by the BBC's Newsnight interviewer Emily Maitlis if he had been involved in "some sort of student hoax", Mr Zeb replied: "No, no, no, no... Um... We were not doing anything intentionally. We were behaving ordinary."

When GMTV's host Penny Smith said to the pair, "What would you say to cynics who might say this was all a bit of a stunt?", she was met with a long, pregnant pause. "Stunt? To... For... All I can say to that is... I don't know," said Mr Zeb. "I wouldn't have thought of that. It's a bit weird."

Mr Ashraf and Mr Zeb were removed from the late-night Airbus A320 by order of the captain, who had been contacted by several passengers worried by their appearance and behaviour after they boarded the plane. They were said to have been talking loudly in Urdu, and wearing suspiciously heavy clothes. When the airline looked into details of their itinerary, the pair were detained pending further security checks.

Although Muslim groups initially condemned Monarch's actions, details of the pair's itinerary obtained by The Independent appear to endorse the airline's decision to treat them with suspicion.

Industry sources revealed they booked their flights after the recent security scare began on 10 August, paying £166 each for the day-trip to Malaga. Although they have claimed that the purpose of the visit was to carry out research for a holiday in September, the pair decided to take an evening flight to the resort. It touched down at 7.25pm, leaving them just a few hours in Malaga before they had to check in for the 3am return journey.

"It sticks out like a sore thumb, since most people would take an early morning flight out for a day-trip abroad," said one aviation insider. "These two took the third flight that Monarch ran from Manchester to Malaga that day. Given the heightened security on UK airlines, a day-trip to Malaga would be an unusual way to wind down. And if, as they told Radio 5 Live, they wanted to 'check the place out', why did they choose to do so in the dark?"

After news of their story broke in the Sunday newspapers, Mr Ashraf and Mr Zeb were tracked down by the Daily Mirror, which is understood to have offered a four-figure sum for their exclusive story. That ran on Wednesday, following which they gave a number of TV and radio interviews, for which they were paid appearance fees of several hundred pounds.

Mr Ashraf and Mr Zeb have claimed to be students at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST). They were due to be sitting exams yesterday morning, and therefore unavailable for further interviews.

However a spokesman for UMIST would neither confirm nor deny that Mr Ashraf and Mr Zeb were undergraduates. The university is closed until September. "We are aware that this has been said, but we can't go into details about our position on it," said the UMIST spokesman. "What I would say is that exam time was several months ago. The only exams that could possibly be going on this week would be resits, but we have no knowledge of those."

Sources on the Daily Mirror played down suggestions they had bought into a publicity stunt. "These two aren't being greedy, they're not being lucrative," said a source. "They could have made a lot more money from a front-page story, and didn't even force us to sign a contract. If this was a prank to make money, they could have done far better from it."

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