A dramatic test for Britain's 'hijack airport'

An Afghan plane with 165 on board landed yesterday at a site built for crises.

Of all the places for a hijacked aircraft to touch down, this may have been the best.

The Ariana Airlines flight from Afghanistan - that meandered across Central Asia and Russia over the weekend - landed here at 2 a.m. yesterday.

It was the fourth hijacked aircraft in 25 years to arrive at Stansted Airport, which was designed to deal with crises involving hostages.

Stansted was originally built by the US during World War II to field the 344th Bomb Group. Today, with a 10,000-foot runway, Stansted is fitted with features to isolate an incident, like this hostagetaking, from the rest of the airport.

Indeed, during the past quarter century, Stansted has become Britain's "hijack airport."

This means that a well-rehearsed procedure swung into action hours before the Boeing 727 and its 165 passengers and crew even touched down.

"We were advised at about 11 p.m. last night that the plane was coming to Stansted," says Colin Mead, spokesman for the local Essex Constabulary. "Ongoing from that moment, a contingency plan went into operation."

The plane was guided to exactly the same location as a Sudanese Airbus that was hijacked in 1996. This is in front of a maintenance hanger, and according to Mr. Mead: "It's on an isolated part of the airfield, well away from the main terminal building. The plane is in a position where it cannot readily take off."

In the 1996 case, six Iraqis seeking asylum from Saddam Hussein's regime took control of a Sudanese jet, and British negotiators succeeded in talking the Iraqis into surrender.

That's what the plans call for this time.

British negotiators intend to talk with the hijackers until the crisis is resolved. They do not intend to allow the jetliner to depart Stansted.

The operation under way will be drawing on a series of skilled teams who have regularly rehearsed an aircraft-hijack situation. It will be under the overall command of the chief constable of Essex, John Stevens, Mead says.

Crisis team ready for action

Those assembling from dawn yesterday to deal with the crisis include: the London Metropolitan Police antiterrorist squad; Essex police trained as negotiators; the British Army elite Special Air Services (SAS) squad; ambulance and fire-service representatives, local police, and police airport-security officers.

The release of five hostages just before noon - within hours of the plane's landing - and the request for food, drink, and an air conditioner were all very good signs, says one analyst with experience of such situations. "It's looking good. The negotiators must be very pleased," he says.

After the first hostage release, John Broughton, assistant chief constable of the Essex Police, told reporters "We are at a very critical stage in our negotiations."

Hours later, three more people were allowed to leave the plane.

Hijackers have been fond of London as a destination because of its concentration of international media, which affords their causes publicity.

A reconstructed Stansted opened to commercial air traffic in 1991, and last year it was expected to handle as many as 9 million passengers. But as the smallest of London's three international airports, it was chosen to handle terrorist situations because that would bring the least disruption to Britain's air-travel market.

Previous safe releases

The first drama to hit Stansted was in 1975, when a British Airways flight en route from Manchester to Heathrow was seized. The hijacker was later arrested.

In 1982, a seized Air Tanzania Boeing 737 with 99 passengers on board came to Stansted as its final destination. After 26 hours of negotiations, the passengers were released and the hijackers surrendered.

Tactically, Stansted is better than Heathrow or Gatwick, London's other two airports, for security forces dealing with such an incident. If it were necessary to ultimately storm the plane and rescue passengers, it is far easier to surround at Stansted. It is also difficult for a plane, once landed, to leave.

Like most of the international community, the British government does not recognize the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist group that controls most of Afghanistan. But a Taliban spokesman said the group has a representative in London who is in touch with British authorities.

The Ariane 727 that touched down before dawn began its journey at Kabul, the Afghan capital, bound for the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Afghanistan is under an international flight ban imposed by the United Nations for refusing to expel Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire the US accuses of funding terrorist groups.

Security is being increased on the airline's remaining seven aircraft.

Hijackers' alleged demands

Afghan media reports say six men armed with pistols and grenades seized the plane, which landed in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, where at least 10 passengers were released in exchange for food and fuel. Then it flew to Moscow, where 10 more passengers were released.

An Afghan news agency earlier reported the hijackers are seeking the release of Ismail Khan, an opposition leader jailed by the Taliban since 1997. But Taliban officials say they have not received any demands and have ruled out talks with the hijackers.

In a statement released through its ambassador to Pakistan, the Islamic group's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, said, "They are terrorists. We will not negotiate with them. We will not accept their demands."

The statement claimed the hijackers were linked to Ahmad Shah Masood, commander of the opposition alliance that controls the 10 percent of the country not under Taliban rule. The opposition has denied any involvement, saying the incident "dishonors the Afghan people."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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