Officials: Passengers freed on a Saudi plane, hijackers arrested

Saturday, October 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Hijackers who commandeered a Saudi plane and took it to Baghdad were arrested late Saturday, Iraqi state television reported, ending a daylong ordeal for 105 people on board when the attackers seized the plane over the Mediterranean Sea.

Details on how the hijacking was resolved were not immediately available, but state television said all the passengers were safe and would be taken to a Baghdad hotel. The hijackers asked for political asylum, the television reported.

The Boeing 777 had landed at Baghdad's Saddam International Airport about 8 p.m. local time, the official Iraqi News Agency reported.

Speaking before the release, an Iraqi official in military uniform said the hijackers, who appeared to number four, said they seized the plane because they were upset over an investigation into the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia that was too favorable to the government.

They also said they ordered Saudi Arabian Airlines Flight 115 to fly to Baghdad because Iraq rejects ``U.S. hegemony,'' said the official, who was shown speaking on state television but not identified.

Security at the Baghdad airport was tight, with guards turning away journalists. Ambulances, buses, a fire engine and a fuel tanker went into the airport as reporters watched.

Saudi Arabia and Iraq have had no relations since Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait in 1990. But 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 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 traveling from Jiddah, Saudi Arabia to London when the hijackers seized it, ordering it around the Middle East before landing in Baghdad. 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.

Word of the hijacking first emerged in Cairo, Egypt: Egyptian civil aviation officials said the pilot radioed them at 3:55 p.m. local time to say the plane had been commandeered and the hijackers were insisting that it fly to Damascus, the Syrian capital.

When it got there, the hijackers asked to land and were denied permission, Cypriot air traffic controllers said on condition of anonymity. Circling over the Mediterranean, the hijackers then asked to fly through Syrian airspace to Iraq, the Cypriots said. The Syrians initially refused but later changed their mind, Damascus air traffic controllers said, and the plane flew through Syria to Baghdad.

Damascus airport officials speaking on condition of anonymity had said the plane landed in Damascus, but they later backed off of those statements, saying they were erroneous. The official Syrian Arab News Agency reported that the plane never landed in Damascus, but flew over Syria to Iraq.

Baghdad's 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.

Saturday's attack 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 144 passengers and the crew escaped unharmed when the man surrendered to Saudi authorities at the city of Hael.