Britons released from hijack jet

Passengers under Saddam's 'protection' in Baghdad, four Saudis arrested
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The Independent Online

Forty Britons were last night under the "protection" of the Iraqi authorities at Baghdad's Saddam International Airport after their plane from Jeddah to London had been hijacked by four Saudis. Little more than an hour after the plane landed, the hijackers were reported to be in the custody of the Iraqi authorities.

Forty Britons were last night under the "protection" of the Iraqi authorities at Baghdad's Saddam International Airport after their plane from Jeddah to London had been hijacked by four Saudis. Little more than an hour after the plane landed, the hijackers were reported to be in the custody of the Iraqi authorities.

On board the Saudi Arabian Airlines plane were 90 passengers and 15 crew, including an Ethiopian captain. Airline officials said the passengers were 40 Britons, 15 Saudis, 15 Pakistanis, four Yemenis, four South Africans, two Kenyans, and one each from France, India, Lebanon, Nigeria, Oman, the Palestinian territories, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States.

Friends and relatives of those on board Flight 115 arrived at Heathrow to be told that it was thousands of miles away, at the mercy the hijackers. Before the ending of the hijack the Iraqi Ministry of Culture and Information said the safety and security of passengers "concerns us as if they were Iraqi citizens". The authorities would "take care of their relatives' safety and comfort to the maximum extent".

The incident comes at a time of escalating tension throughout the Middle East after two weeks in which more than 100 people - nearly all Palestinians - have died in clashes in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The Saudi aircraft had been taken over shortly after leaving Jeddah. Frantic negotiations led to it overflying Syria and landing in Baghdad shortly before 6pm British time. The hijackers were believed to be demanding asylum in Iraq. They had told the pilot they had explosives and would blow up the jet unless they were given clearance to fly to Baghdad. A Saudi official said a member of the kingdom's royal family was on board. Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the United States, but security at Jeddah airport has been criticised as lax.

Hours before the hijacking, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat agreed to meet in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh tomorrow in a last bid to prevent full-scale war. The hijack could yet have an impact on the summit.

Iraq had already expressed its opposition to the meeting, saying it was intended to kill off the Palestinian uprising and would only serve "American and Zionist goals".

The Israeli and Palestinian leaders both finally bowed to diplomatic pressure yesterday and dropped their preconditions for attending the summit.

The first challenge they face is to secure a ceasefire in the streets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The second will be to try to salvage something from the embers of the peace process, broken off at Camp David in July, and all but extinguished by the violence of recent weeks.

Bill Clinton confirmed yesterday that he will attend the summit in Egypt. But he signalled that his expectations for the meeting are limited.

"I will do everything I can to minimise the violence and to do all the preparation necessary to maximise the chances of a successful meeting,'' he said. But Mr Clinton added: "We should be under no illusions ... The path ahead is difficult."

Jerusalem and the volatile Palestinian towns of the West Bank and Gaza were relatively quiet yesterday for the first time in 17 days, though tensions remained high. In Hebron, a second Palestinian has died from wounds sustained during clashes with Israeli troops on Friday, bringing the toll since 28 September to 106 - 99 Israeli or Palestinian Arabs and seven Israeli Jews.

A crowd of about 7,000 mourners, chanting "Revenge, revenge" and "Down with the olive branch, long live the rifle", and carrying banners calling for attacks on Israel, took to the streets to bury a victim. His body was covered by a Palestinian flag, and borne by Palestinian police. Gunmen fired into the air.

Mr Arafat was under pressure last night from radical Palestinian groups in Damascus to reconsider his decision to go to the summit, saying it would merely serve American and Israeli interests.

Until yesterday, the Palestinian leader had insisted on a withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian towns and villages, as well as the establishment of an international inquiry into the violence as preconditions for attending a summit. He also preferred to go to an Arab summit, scheduled for next weekend, before meeting Mr Barak.

Under pressure from the UN, the United States and pro-Western Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, who feared that regional unrest may threaten their own regimes, he dropped these conditions.

Mr Barak then dropped his demand for Mr Arafat to call a halt to the violence. It is unclear whether Mr Clinton will assume the role of lead broker at the summit or whether anti-US sentiment in the region will confer that task instead on the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan.

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