A Dozen Air Travelers Under Mysterious Questioning

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What exactly happened on Northwestern Airlines flight 042 out of Amsterdam this morning still isn't clear, but to give themselves ample time to figure it out, Dutch authorities have formally placed a dozen passengers under arrest. The Bombay-bound DC-10 had just crossed into German airspace when the pilot radioed back to Schiphol Airport that some passengers were acting suspiciously and that he was turning around. Two Dutch Air Force F-16s scrambled from an air base in Leeuwarden to escort the plane back to Amsterdam. All the passengers were taken off the flight, but 12 of them were handcuffed and immediately taken into custody by airport police.

The 12 remain in custody at the airport lock-up this evening. But who are they and what exactly had they done to arouse suspicions? Lt. Col Vincent Egbers of the Royal Dutch Military Police would not confirm Dutch media reports that the group had been using cellphones and passing them back and forth among themselves. "I can't deny that report, either," he said.

Dutch police normally have six hours to investigate detainees before contacting the prosecutor. "We still have questions to ask these 12 persons, so the prosecutor has given us three days to continue our investigation," said Egbers. "It's going on in close coordination with the National Coordinator of Anti-Terrorism." Public prosecutor spokesman Ed Hartjes says his office granted the time because there is "suspicion that a crime was committed," but he refused to comment on what the arrestees did to make authorities suspicious, saying no further comment would come until Thursday at the earliest.

What is clear, however, is that the National Coordinator of Anti-Terrorism has seen no cause to raise the terrorism threat level. "We haven't done so because there's no reason to," said agency spokesman Wim Kok. "There is no more threat of terrorism today at Schiphol airport or in the Netherlands as a whole than there was yesterday."

Two years ago a British Airways flight got a dual F-16 escort back to Schiphol after a bomb scare. That turned out to be a false alarm, but after the events of the last two weeks, no one is disposed to take any chances on airplanes.