Chinese couple hijack an airliner to Taiwan: Spate of incidents blamed on lax security at airports

JUST one day after China's government had again stressed tough new measures to curb air traffic accidents and hijackings, another aircraft on a domestic flight was hijacked to Taiwan. It was the 10th such hijacking since April this year.

In yesterday's incident, a married couple with a fake bomb successfully diverted a Fujian Airlines aircraft to Taipei where they, with their young daughter, surrendered to the Taiwanese authorities and asked for asylum. Earlier in the day, according to Taiwan state radio, another Chinese plane had been spotted heading for Taiwan airspace but then turned back.

Lax airport security and inadequate safety and maintenance inspections have been blamed for this year's spate of hijackings and air crashes. With air travel in China booming, the country's airports and aviation industry cannot cope with soaring passenger numbers. Crew training and air traffic control standards are inadequate.

This year there have been five reported air accidents, in which about 70 people died. In the second half of 1992, 276 people died in crashes.

Last Thursday, Jiang Zhuping, the head of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, was demoted as part of the government's attempts to shake up the industry and improve passenger safety. On Monday Mr Jiang described some of the main reasons for the accidents: crew members' inability to handle emergencies, especially during landings; some civil aviation companies' inadequate management of safety and maintenance; and the 'sometimes blind quest for economic efficiency that can jeopardise public safety'. China would spend about pounds 22m next year to improve safety facilities, he said.

The hijackings represent a political problem as well as a security challenge for China. Yesterday's hijackers, Luo Changhua, 38, a company manager and his 34-year-old wife, were taken into custody in Taipei and the aircraft and its 42 passengers returned to China. Like other mainlanders, the couple will face air piracy charges in Taiwan's courts, which claim jurisdiction; two mainland hijackers have already received 10-year sentences and the rest are awaiting trial.

China, however, wants Taiwan, which it claims is part of China, to return all hijackers to the mainland. The issue has loomed large in recent non- governmental talks between the two Chinas: in bilateral meetings last week, Taiwan agreed in principle that hijackers could be repatriated, but said it had the right to decide if any of them had valid political or religious motives.

According to Taiwan radio, the hijackers said they had wanted to escape from China because the government had demolished their home four months ago. Mr Luo was carrying a bottle containing batteries, a nail, a box of matches and wire which he persuaded the crew was a bomb. Security during check-in procedures at Chinese airports is so relaxed that it would not have been difficult to smuggle such items on to the aircraft.