Hundred of passengers were rescued by police in a dramatic raid early this morning after a man armed with a screwdriver hijacked a domestic airliner and demanded the release of Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinri Kyo religious cult.
A 24-year old woman was stabbed and four other passengers taken to hospital in the northern port town of Hakodate, 425 miles from Tokyo, but there were no serious casualties among the 350 passengers and 15 crew. The hijacker, described as a Japanese man in his forties, was arrested after a struggle. Officers climbed covered ladders on the starboard side of the blue-and- white plane, entered it from three entrances and found the hijacker with a female flight attendant in the front end of the cabin. When a detective and three officers tried to grab him, he fought back with the screwdriver. "There was a scuffle which resulted in the hijacker's T-shirt becoming bloody," a Hakodate police spokesman, Satoru Kakuchi, said. The raid lasted only three minutes.
Japanese television showed the hijacker being led away with his face covered, and blood drenching his sleeves. The man was earlier thought to have been armed with an icepick but this turned out to be a screwdriver with a replacable head,
The drama began around noon yesterday when a man claiming to be an Aum member threatened a flight attendant half an hour into an All Nippon Airways flight from Tokyo to Hakodate. For 15 hours the Boeing 747 was stationary on the airport's single runway, as soldiers, riot police, chemical warfare units, military aircraft and emergency services stood by.
Communicating through the plane's pilot, the hijacker refused to allow passengers to disembark unless the plane was refuelled and flown back to Tokyo. "Food and water will not affect whether people live or die," the captain, Hironobu Kiyohara, reported the hijacker as saying. "All requests wait till we've arrived in Tokyo. If my demands aren't met, I will take the final step." He warned the authorities against storming the plane and demanded binoculars to follow their movements.
The man brandished a box which he claimed to be a plastic explosives device. He had also claimed to have accomplices on board, although this turned out to be untrue. At one point he told a cabin attendant that he had Aids.
Several passengers with mobile phones called friends to describe the scene on board the plane. "A terrible thing has happened," said Tatsuo Yamamoto, the 47-year old head of an engineering company. "Some passengers are blindfolded and have their hands tied behind their backs." Captain Kiyohara and his co-pilot remained unfettered, locked into their illuminated cockpit. Television images, broadcast live on Japanese stations, showed them talking to one another throughout the night.
Television pictures were suspended during the raid itself, but images broadcast later showed police in chemical protection outfits and riot gear scrambling up ladders into hatches in the plane's underbelly.
The hijacker earlier identified himself as Saburo Kobayashi and claimed to be a member of Aum Shinri Kyo. "I did it for Asahara!" he is said to have shouted as he was arrested.
Members of Aum, including their guru Shoko Asahara, are awaiting trial for the murder of 12 commuters in the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway on 20 March. Yesterday interrogators reported that the guru had admitted for the first time ordering the murder of a cult member. There was speculation that this may have triggered the hijack.
Hijackings are uncommon in Japan. Even penknives are confiscated. Guns are hard to come by and airport security, even on internal flights, is vigilant. Television announcers read out long lists of passengers during the hostage stand off which was broadcast live on all the main news channels. Among the names were at least 11 foreigners, including three Finns, a Frenchman and a Canadian.
Anxious relatives were kept out of sight of the plane in the terminal building of the small airport. After the rescue, the passengers were whisked away in buses. The Japanese Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama, was woken up to be told of the end of the crisis. "That's great! That's great! That's great!" he is reported to have said.
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