The resolution of Britain's longest hijacking crisis is raising questions and concerns that the case of the Afghan airliner may set a troubling precedent for governments around the world.
While most hijackers seek to grab international attention for their political demands or grievances, in a few cases their goal has been political asylum. But it appears the Ariana Boeing 727 hijacked on Sunday shortly after takeoff from the Afghan capital, Kabul, may have been a mass asylum bid in which some passengers may have been involved.
The aircraft made stops in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia before landing at Stansted Airport near London on Monday.
Magnus Ranstorp, a specialist at the center for terrorism studies at St. Andrew's University, in Scotland, says the hijacking "presents Britain and other countries in Europe and elsewhere with an acute dilemma." Authorities must decide whether to accede to the hijackers' requests, or send them back to a country where some could face the death penalty. He points out similarities to mass departures of Haitians and Cubans bound for the United States, and the "boat people" who fled Vietnam in the 1970s and '80s. But Dr. Ranstorp says the new development poses "a much more wide-ranging threat."
Green light for asylum seekers
"It seems hardly likely that the authorities in London will just send them back. But if they are allowed to stay, they will be seen to have succeeded in their aim. That may encourage other groups in other countries to regard cities in Europe and elsewhere as targets for hijackings by asylum seekers," Ranstorp says. He notes Britain already has a backlog of around 100,000 asylum seekers.
Home Secretary Jack Straw told the House of Commons, the lower House of Parliament, yesterday that 60 people aboard the flight had asked for asylum for themselves and 14 children traveling with them. Mr. Straw said he would personally decide on all of the requests, adding, "I am determined that no one should consider that there is any benefit to be obtained by hijacking." He hinted that anyone who had boarded the flight with the intention of seeking asylum would be considered part of the hijacking plot.
Conservative opposition leader William Hague earlier warned the government not to become a "soft touch" on immigration. He said there were already "too many" people seeking asylum here. They are a considerable burden for British taxpayers. The Home Office says the cost of supporting a single adult asylum seeker is 7,800 ($12,500) a year. If all those aboard the Ariana jet were to claim asylum, the bill could amount to more than $1,610,000 a year.
In Britain's last hijacking case, the six Iraqis who seized a Sudanese passenger plane in 1996 claimed they were fleeing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's repressive regime.
A British court found them guilty of hijacking, but they were later released on appeal. Home Office officials say they are drawing social security benefits while awaiting a decision on their future.
Under international law, Britain is obliged to consider any asylum claim that is made after any relevant criminal proceedings are completed.
A 'wedding party' gone astray
Police say they have arrested 19 of the 151 people who left the Afghan aircraft early yesterday morning after nearly four days of negotiations.
David Stevens, chief constable of Essex County police, said, "No requests or guarantees on asylum were made, and none have been given."
Before the crisis ended, officials in Britain and Afghanistan confirmed that at least 40 of the passengers, supposedly members of a wedding party, were relatives of at least one of the hijackers. The officials said their intention all along had been to reach Britain and apply for asylum from Afghanistan's ruling Taliban.
Hope Hanlon, an official from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, was among those on hand yesterday to interview people who had been aboard the plane.
A London-based UNHCR spokesman says, "Conditions in Afghanistan are very, very miserable, and people are often driven to extremes in these circumstances."
Since the pullout of Soviet troops in 1989, Afghanistan has been racked by factional fighting.
The Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime won control of about 90 percent of the country in 1996, but is not widely recognized by the international community, including Britain.
The Taliban has asked British authorities for the quick return of the Ariana aircraft - the airline only has nine - and to punish the hijackers.
Mullah Hamidullah, head of the Ariana airline, said it was suspected that women in the supposed wedding party hid weapons under their heavy veils as they boarded the aircraft. Several staff at the airport are reportedly under interrogation by local police.
Mr. Hamidullah said there are no x-ray machines at Afghan airports, and the strict Islamic law of the regime prohibits security staff (only men can be employed) from searching female passengers.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society