Hijacked Iranians held `hostage' by Israel for 30 hours

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The Independent Online
Iranian passengers on a plane hijacked to Israel accused the Israeli government yesterday of holding them as hostages as they waited to fly back to Iran more than 24 hours after they landed at this remote air base in the Negev desert.

"If you are going to keep us hostages you should announce it," said Mehdi Gaarayali, 45, a teacher from Mashad in north-east Iran who the day before had praised Israeli hospitality. Another passenger said: "We simply want to go home. Some of us have been questioned four or five times about whether we know anybody in the Iranian Army or senior political figures."

As relations between the 176 passengers and their Israeli hosts deteriorated, officials announced that the plane was free to fly back to Iran. Israeli sources said the delay was caused because the government wanted to see if it could find out more about the fate of Ron Arad, the navigator on an Israeli aircraft shot down when bombing a target in Lebanon in 1986.

The hijacker was named last night as Jabari Reza, 36, one of the airline stewards. He used a pistol to take over the cockpit of the plane during a domestic flight. Mr Reza, who asked for asylum in Israel, will be taken to court today and is likely to face charges of air piracy.

The rest of the passengers arrived back in Tehran last night aboard their Boeing 707. "Welcome home from your imprisonment", said a radio announcer as the plane touched down at Mehrabad Airport.

General Amos Gilad, the Israeli army spokesman at Ovda, said Israel "was 100 per cent certain that Iran took Arad. We hold [President Ali Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani responsible for his health and well-being." He insisted that the hijacked Kish Air 707, on a holiday flight between Tehran and the Gulf resort of Kish Island, was military, because it was on lease from Iran's air force.

The passengers, at least a third of them women, said they had never heard of Ron Arad. The men all appeared to be holidaymakers who had paid $40 (pounds 25) for a return flight to Kish. Seyed Davoud Sahiholnassar, a civil engineer, said he did not believe reports that five of the passengers wanted political asylum in Israel.

By the time the flight took off yesterday evening, after more than 30 hours at the Israeli base, the episode had contributed to a sharp deterioration in relations between Israel and Iran. In the Iranian parliament, against a background of chants of "Death to Israel", the Speaker, Ali Akbar Nateq- Nouri, said: "The fact that the plane was not returned to Iran after the surrender of the hijacker indicates a conspiracy. It is in keeping with the American embargo against Iran."

Early yesterday the Israeli inner cabinet had decided that holding the plane was not doing Mr Arad any good and might do him some harm. General Gilad insists, in any case, that Israel has full information about his condition.

Israeli observers suggest that the reason the government decided to use the hijacking to publicise the Arad case was largely determined by its domestic political needs. Facing a general election next year, it wants to avoid charges from right-wing parties that it is not doing enough to get him back.

The passengers, who had passed the night sleeping 10 to a room at a nearby army base, looked bemused by the arrival of Batya Arad, the airman's mother, who handed out leaflets in English about her son. Seven-year-old Farhad Megan was pressed back in his seat by a dozen television cameramen and photographers as Mrs Arad pasted a sticker saying "Free Ron Arad" on his T-shirt.

An Israeli soldier snapped at a correspondent who was interviewing an Iranian: "Be polite enough to wait until she has finished speaking."

"All this propaganda has got out of hand," said an Israeli photographer as he watched the 707 being refuelled. "We should have sent them home yesterday."