Hijacking of Kuwaiti jet to Iran highlights strained relations between the two nations

The hijacking of a Kuwaiti airliner to Iran on Tuesday has highlighted the tense and delicate nature of relations between Tehran and Kuwait, strained by the Iraq-Iran conflict and by numerous bilateral incidents. Tehran said it was determined to end peacefully the hijacking, which was continuing as of press time Tuesday. Tehran dispatched a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official to conduct contacts with the hijackers at Mashhad airport, in the far north-east of the country.

Kuwait had earlier summoned the Iranian charg'e d'affaires and told him that it regarded the hijacking as a matter for the Iranian authorities to deal with, since the aircraft had landed in Iranian territory.

Radio contact with the Kuwait Airways Boeing 747 had been lost as it passed through the Omani air control zone on a flight from Bangkok to Kuwait. Iran later announced that the airliner had been hijacked. It was allowed to land at Mashhad airport, near the border with the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, after the pilot radioed that he was running out of fuel.

Kuwait Airways said there were 96 passengers and 15 crew on board. Among the passengers were 30 Kuwaiti nationals and 22 British citizens.

At press time, the Iranians - the only source of on-the-spot information - had issued few additional details about the situation. The identity, affiliations and demands of the hijackers remained unclear. Iranian officials said only that they were Arabic-speaking, and had threatened to blow up the airliner if any security forces approached it.

[Reuters reports that one Jordanian citizen, whom the hijackers released for health reasons, told authorities that there were six or seven hijackers armed with hand grenades and guns.]

The incident inevitably revived memories of the hijacking to Tehran of a Kuwaiti Airbus in December 1984. During the course of a drama lasting six days, two American passengers were shot dead by the Arab hijackers, who were demanding the release of 17 pro-Iranian Islamic extremists jailed in Kuwait on bomb charges.

The 1984 hijacking ended with Iranian security men ``storming'' the airliner and freeing the remaining hostages.

Kuwait officially thanked the Iranian government for its role. But Kuwaiti officials privately said they did not believe the Iranian version of how the drama ended, pointing out that there were no casualties among the hostages or the hijackers.

They expressed the suspicion that some elements in the Iranian revolutionary Islamic regime may have had a hand in the affair. Iran has frequently been accused of having strong ties with cells of Islamic extremists abroad, including the 17 jailed in Kuwait.

Kuwait has long supported Iraq in the 7-year Iran-Iraq war, but since the 1984 hijacking, relations between Tehran and Kuwait have progressively worsened. Only six days before the latest hijacking, Kuwait accused Iranian gunboats of opening fire on positions manned by Kuwaiti troops on Bubiyan Island, at the head of the Gulf.

Although the two countries maintain diplomatic relations at reduced level, Kuwait's embassy in Tehran has been effectively closed for business since it was attacked by a crowd of Iranian protesters in the wake of the incidents at Mecca on July 31st last year, when nearly 300 Iranian pilgrims died in riots.

Earlier this year, Tehran had shown some signs of wanting to improve relations with Kuwait. Given the delicacy of that relationship, observers believe the outcome of the Mashhad hijacking could clearly have a significant effect one way or the other.

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