Hard-drinking hijackers escape plane with £2.2m

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The Independent US

Five bandits hijacked a Brazilian passenger plane at gunpoint, forced the pilot to make an emergency landing at an isolated sugar cane plantation and fled in vans with £2.2m in cash from the cargo hold.

Five bandits hijacked a Brazilian passenger plane at gunpoint, forced the pilot to make an emergency landing at an isolated sugar cane plantation and fled in vans with £2.2m in cash from the cargo hold.

The hijackers, who passed airport security carrying automatic weapons, held up the Boeing 737 10 minutes into its flight on Wednesday evening. Most of the 72 on board were foreign tourists returning from a trip to Foz de Iguacu, the biggest waterfalls in the world.

Roberto Viana dos Santos, a federal police spokesman, said: "The Vasp Airline jet was hijacked by a gang that had disguised themselves as passengers. They pointed a gun at a stewardess and forced her to open the door to the cockpit. Once inside, a hijacker fired a shot in the air but later apologised, saying he had accidentally let the gun off."

The robbers, who were swigging whisky, told passengers they would not harm anyone. They said the plane was carrying money, and that was the sole reason for the hijacking.

Gabrielle Chiari, a 55-year-old Italian tourist, said: "It was extremely tense. They told us not to speak to one another, then they fired a shot in the air. Two of the hijackers were really nervous and were drinking lots of whisky.

"When the stewardess asked how they had got the guns on board, she was told that was for the police to discover."

Police say one gunman was an experienced pilot who gave detailed instructions about the flight. The plane, which had been flying south to Curitiba, in the state of Parana, as scheduled, was forced to head north to a little-known airstrip.

"The pilot argued with the main hijacker, telling him it was impossible for a Boeing to land in such a small place and that everyone would be killed if he attempted to do so," said Mr dos Santos. "But this man obviously knew what he was doing because he insisted and the plane was put down without any problems."

The gang hauled the money bags out of the cargo hold and escaped into two Ford Transit vans. The Vasp pilot managed to take off again and flew to the nearest airport, 50 miles away, where passengers boarded a waiting plane to take them to their destinations.

One passenger, Maria Cristina Almeida, said: "It was one of the scariest moments in my life. But when I think about it, I would go through the same again just to see those amazing waterfalls."

Policeare questioning airport staff about weapons-smuggling. Unconfirmed reports say the money belonged to the Banco do Brasil, a leading high-street bank.

Brazil has been plagued by daring plane robberies. In June, gunmen stole £500,000 from a jet waiting on the tarmac of Sao Paulo city airport. And last year, a cargo of gold bullion was hijacked from a plane, which was then forced to land in a remote jungle town in the heart of the Amazon. These gangs, too, have avoided detection.

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