Hijacking finishes in Baghdad

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The Independent Online

All the passengers on a hijacked Saudi plane have been freed and the hijackers arrested, Iraqi state television has reported. The plane was carrying 105 people to London when the hijackers seized it over the Mediterranean and forced it to fly to Baghdad, where it landed at Saddam International Airport at 1650 GMT, the official Iraqi News Agency reported.

All the passengers on a hijacked Saudi plane have been freed and the hijackers arrested, Iraqi state television has reported. The plane was carrying 105 people to London when the hijackers seized it over the Mediterranean and forced it to fly to Baghdad, where it landed at Saddam International Airport at 1650 GMT, the official Iraqi News Agency reported.

No details were released on how the passengers' freedom was secured. State television said only that they were all safe and would be taken to a Baghdad hotel. The crisis ended peacefully and the hijackers asked for political asylum, the television reported.

Speaking before the release, an Iraqi Interior Ministry official, Taher Haboush, said the hijackers, who appeared to number four, had said they seized the plane because they were upset over a foreign investigation into human rights in Saudi Arabia that was too favorable to the Riyadh government. They also said they ordered the Boeing 777 to fly to Baghdad because Iraq rejects "U.S. hegemony," said the official, who was broadcast speaking on state television but not identified.

Security at the Baghdad airport was tight, with guards turning away journalists. A fleet of ambulances and buses went into the airport, apparently to pick up the passengers. A fire engine and a fuel tanker also went into the airport compound. The Iraqi Ministry of Culture and Information issued a statement saying "the safety and security of the Saudi plane's passengers concerns us as if they were Iraqi citizens. Therefore, we reassure the families of the passengers that the Iraqi authorities will take of their relatives' safety and comfort to the maximum extent."

Saudi Arabia and Iraq have had no relations since Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait in 1990. A hijacker had at one point threatened to blow up the plane unless it was allowed to fly to Baghdad, Saudi officials said on condition of anonymity. Saudi Arabian Airlines officials in Jiddah said the plane had 90 passengers and 15 crew, led by an Ethiopian captain. The 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.

The plane was hijacked on its way to London, having taken off from Jiddah. The hijacking was first reported after the pilot radioed Cairo airport at 1255 GMT to say the plane had been commandeered by a man who insisted it fly to Damascus, Syria. Syrian authorities initially refused to grant permission for the plane to land and it circled over the eastern Mediterranean, Cypriot air traffic controllers reported. Later Damascus airport granted permission and officials told reporters the plane had landed.

Late Saturday, the official Syrian Arab News Agency said the plane did not land at Damascus, but flew over Syria to Iraq. It was the second hijacking in the Gulf in a month. On Sept. 14, an Iraqi man hijacked a Qatar Airways plane at knifepoint and ordered it flown to Saudi Arabia. The Airbus A300 plane with 144 passengers and crew was en route from Doha to Amman. Everyone on board escaped unharmed when the man surrendered to Saudi authorities at the city of Hael. Saddam airport was reopened on Aug. 17, having been shut during the 1991 Gulf War.

Regular flights to Baghdad are banned by the U.N. sanctions imposed since the invasion of Kuwait. But a series of planes have landed at Saddam airport in the past three weeks as France, Russia and a dozen Arab states sent delegations and humanitarian aid to Iraq. The flights were intended to express opposition to the sanctions' causing widespread shortages and malnutrition among the Iraqi people.

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