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Hijacker seeks sheikh's release

DUSSELDORF - An Egyptian hijacker who seized a KLM airliner yesterday after threatening the crew with a bomb, set a 12- hour deadline for the United States to release Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Egyptian cleric linked to the New York World Trade Center bombing in February.

The Arabic-speaking hijacker, who forced flight KL100 from Tunis to Amsterdam to land at Dusseldorf, released the female co-pilot shortly after setting the deadline for freeing Sheikh Abdel-Rahman at 7am GMT today. A police spokesman at Dusseldorf airport said he threatened more attacks if the demand was not met.

The plane landed at Dusseldorf about 1330 GMT, about half an hour after the hijacker gave the pilot a note in English saying he would blow it up if it was not flown to New York, said a KLM spokeswoman in Amsterdam.

All 131 passengers and four of the seven crew were freed shortly after it landed, leaving only the pilot and a steward still on board the Boeing 737-400 jet. The airliner was parked in a far corner of the busy airport while police negotiated by radio with the hijacker.

Sheikh Abdel-Rahman, who is accused of entering the United States illegally while on a banned list, is contesting deportation. Egypt has sought his extradition for trial in connection with riots by Islamic fundamentalists. Some of his followers are being held on suspicion of involvement in the World Trade Center bombing, which killed six people and injured more than 1,000.

The hijacker first insisted that the remaining three crew members should fly the plane to New York, and also demanded that the United Nations enforce its sanctions against Serbia. But, accepting that the mid-range airliner could not reach New York, he later asked to be flown to another European country such as Sweden.

A KLM stewardess, Dominique van de Wouw, said that neither she nor the passengers had noticed the hijacking at first. 'Everything was very quiet on board,' she said. 'All of a sudden, about half an hour before we landed, we heard that something was going on.'

A Tunisian passenger, Faisal el-Adhari, said he had seen the hijacker at Tunis airport. 'He was behind me in the check-in queue and he was very nervous.'

The last hijacking in Germany was on 9 February, when an Ethiopian smuggled a starter's pistol on board a Lufthansa airbus at Frankfurt and diverted the plane to New York, where he gave himself up.