Aircraft hijacker faces Spanish piracy charge

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The Independent Online
A MOROCCAN hijacker who used a fake pistol to force an aircraft flying from Casablanca to Tunis to touch down in Barcelona is to appear in court today charged with air piracy.

The 54-year-old hijacker surrendered early yesterday and was detained by Spanish security forces after releasing unharmed the 92 people, including four babies, on board the aircraft. He had demanded that the Royal Air Maroc Boeing 737 be refuelled in Barcelona and then flown on to Frankfurt.

But after protracted negotiations, he freed his hostages unharmed and gave himself up without a struggle. Spanish officials said the man was "mentally unstable" and his motive for the hijack seemed to be a desperate attempt to emigrate to Europe but a spokesman for the Catalan regional government, David Bonet, said the hijacker's motives were unclear because he kept changing his story.

The plane landed in Barcelona on Wednesday night, to be greeted by a huge security operation. Specially trained police officers and psychologists known as "incident negotiators" spoke to the hijacker, with the aim of persuading him to give up peacefully.

More than six hours later, the passengers filed out of the aircraft into two buses, while the hijacker waited with the pilot for police. "The most important thing was a peaceful resolution," the police negotiator, Carlos Rubio, said. "Intervention is always the last resort."

Jose Angel Giro, a senior Civil Guard officer who took part in the negotiations and the final arrest, added: "It was a long negotiation, and I think it was exhaustion as much as anything that persuaded him to give himself up."

The passengers, who were praised for staying calm throughout their ordeal, were taken by bus to Barcelona airport's transit lounge where they spent the rest of the night. Yesterday morning they were put on to another Royal Air Maroc plane, with a fresh crew, and flown to Tunis.

"I was sitting in the first row near the cockpit when the hijacker, brandishing a pistol, entered the cockpit," one passenger, Bornia Landolsi, said. "We had just applauded the captain after he announced we had landed safely. But when a crewman said we had landed in Barcelona, not Tunis, and that our plane was hijacked, we cried. We had been told to stay calm. There was no panic, but most of us cried. I was extremely scared. My seven-year-old daughter, Rawia, cried and insisted we get out of the plane. She didn't understand why we couldn't."

Officials said the hijacker would be held in Barcelona to face air piracy charges, expected to be filed today. The authorities have 72 hours from the time of detention to bring the hijacker before a judge.