Gunman hijacks plane from rebel territory in Columbia

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The Independent US

At least one gunman commandeered a passenger plane Tuesday in rebel territory in Colombia with 31 people aboard and forced it to fly to the capital, Bogota.

At least one gunman commandeered a passenger plane Tuesday in rebel territory in Colombia with 31 people aboard and forced it to fly to the capital, Bogota.

Gen. Hector Fabio Velasco, the commander of the air force, said the hijacker was apparently a leftist guerrilla. An air force officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the hijacker told the control tower over the radio that he was a rebel deserter.

After arriving in Bogota, a passenger who was suffering from appendicitis was allowed to leave the plane, the air force officer said.

The unfolding drama was broadcast live on national television and kept viewers glued to their TV sets. RCN television reported that the hijacker was demanding that he be provided with another aircraft to fly him out of the country. Officials did not immediately confirm that report.

The plane belongs to Satena, a state-owned airline, and was hijacked from San Vicente del Caguan, the largest town in a rebel enclave in southern Colombia.

The German-made Dornier turboprop had 27 passengers and four crewmembers aboard, said airline spokeswoman Maria Elena Moreno.

Family members of those aboard watched in horror as the plane took off from San Vicente. Some tried to get on to the runway to block the departing plane.

"I tried to prevent the plane from taking off, but the pilot signaled to me that I shouldn't," said Adela de Altamar, whose daughter Carolina was aboard the plane. She then broke down sobbing.

As dusk fell over the capital, the cream-colored plane sat on the tarmac. No one approached it. Authorities were reportedly in contact with the plane via radio.

Just before the hijacking, the plane had landed on a flight from Bogota with a stopover in the southern city of Neiva. The safe haven was ceded by President Andres Pastrana to rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, two years ago to propel peace talks forward.

The government's recognition of rebel control over the Switzerland-sized zone expires Wednesday night, but it has already been renewed several times. It is expected to be renewed again, even though peace talks were broken off by the FARC last November.

It was the second hijacking in months involving the guerrillas. In September, a jailed FARC rebel being transported from one prison to another hijacked a commercial flight and forced it to land at San Vicente del Caguan before freeing 21 passengers and crew unharmed. The rebels have refused government demands to turn over the hijacker.

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