Destination Unknown

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Few crimes have such strict conventions as an airplane hijack. There must be an aircraft, a plan to divert it and hijackers willing to risk their lives and those of innocents. All three elements were present in last week's takeover of a Boeing 727 owned by Ariana Afghan Airlines, Afghanistan's state carrier. Skipping its original destination of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, the plane hopped to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Moscow and finally ended up at Stansted Airport outside London. Some of the original 188 passengers and crew were released along the way, but negotiations at Stansted dragged on for three days. It was all familiar, frightening stuff.At the end of the tale, though, the most rigid convention of all was broken. When a hijacking concludes, the hostages go one way--with luck, home to their loved ones--and the hijackers another, to the morgue, to jail or into negotiated exile. But at Stansted last week, local police ushered people off the plane not sure how many of the passengers were in sympathy or actively complicit with the hijackers--or whether the theft of the aircraft had no purpose other than transporting a large number of Afghans to a freer, richer country. An early theory that the hijackers wanted the release of a jailed opposition leader in Afghanistan proved erroneous. A later report that a wedding party with connections to the hijackers had boarded the plane, possibly with weapons concealed beneath the female members' all-encompassing robes, gained credence. Late last week, British authorities said they had dealt with eight hijackers during the negotiations, but they arrested 22 of the passengers on preliminary charges--suggesting that the hijackers had accomplices aboard. The most likely theory: that instead of heading for a wedding in Mazar-i-Sharif, a group of passengers from the Afghan capital of Kabul hoped that tickets on Ariana could be parleyed into political asylum in Britain. Kabul is a hell, says Masood Khalili, a former Afghan diplomat now in exile in New Delhi. Everybody wants to escape. We can't call this a hijacking. We have to find another name.

A flight to freedom? A scam? The average Afghan probably sees a little of both and is admiring to the point of envy. Instead of spending $15,000 to $20,000 to try and reach some Western country, says Badam Gul Jaji, an Afghan refugee in Pakistan, the hijackers found a much cheaper and quicker way to land in London. In fact, when the drama was over, 74 of the passengers immediately applied for asylum, though British authorities couldn't say whether they were innocent hostages or passengers in on the game. The real risk for Britain is that the Ariana incident will give it a reputation for being soft on asylum seekers, even those who devise a major criminal conspiracy to get there. Refugees granted asylum in Britain are eligible for monthly benefits of $240, and more than 102,000 applications are in the backlog. In 1996, six Iraqis were arrested after hijacking a plane to Stansted, but their conviction was overturned on appeal by a judge who compared their plight to Anne Frank's during World War II. They're now in the asylum queue, and the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair is taking heat. His spokesman said last week: Clearly you cannot have a situation where a signal can be sent to anybody that the way to get asylum is through hijacking a plane. Human rights groups, meanwhile, say the Afghans should be considered refugees escaping an intolerable regime. A hijacking is a hostage-taking and a human rights abuse and must be condemned, says Amnesty International spokesman Richard Bunting. But the human rights situation in Afghanistan is extremely serious, and the passengers have the right to have their asylum applications assessed individually.
Even if the hijacking is considered kindly, it's a miracle that the plane and its human cargo made it to London unscathed. (The only minor injury was to a flight attendant who, having apparently angered the hijackers, was kicked down the plane's rear stairs to freedom.) Shortly after taking off from Kabul for Mazar-i-Sharif, normally a 40-minute flight, the 727 was reported missing. Just over an hour later it landed in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, where it traded 10 passengers for fuel and food. A Moscow newspaper reported that Uzbek anti-terrorist troopers were itching to storm the aircraft but were pulled back by their government. After the plane took off, a fuel tank sprung a leak and the 727 was forced to land for repairs in Aktyubinsk, Kazakhstan. Three more hostages were released and technicians did their best to fix the plane, but they later told journalists it was barely fit to fly. Ariana owns three aging 727s and a handful of Russian-built Antonov-24s. Servicing for all the planes used to be done in the Middle East: Afghanistan doesn't have the expertise. But that was stopped when U.N. sanctions were imposed last November.

Next stop was Moscow, where the plane was directed to a section of Sheremetyevo airport reserved for the training of Russia's anti-terrorist squads. But authorities decided against a commando raid, instead refueling the plane and giving food in return for the release of 10 more hostages. Four hours later, it landed at Stansted, a commercial airport 50 km northeast of London.

Though Britain is a logical destination for hijackers seeking asylum, it is also home of the Special Air Services, a commando unit trained to deal with hijackings. Stansted happens to be where the SAS regularly trains, which is why hijacked craft are often diverted there. The Ariana flight was parked at the end of a runway and immediately surrounded by security forces, including SAS commandos. Only the most optimistic hijacker could have envisioned a clean getaway.

It never came to that, for the hijackers showed no interest in getting away, or for that matter, getting anything. We were as curious as everyone else at their lack of clear-cut demands, said David Stevens, chief constable of the Essex County police, which handled the negotiations. Details of those talks have been kept under wraps. Nine passengers were released; four members of the crew, including the pilot, managed to climb down a rope from the cockpit, angering the hijackers and leading to the expulsion of the steward and a break in negotiations. But by early Thursday morning, passengers started exiting the plane's rear staircase, captured on live, night-vision video as ethereal yellow ectoplasms, robes whirling in the pre-dawn chill. They came out in two batches, and authorities announced it would take days of debriefings to sort the guilty from the innocent. (They did say they had recovered four handguns, five knives, two detonators, two grenades and a set of brass knuckles.)

Back in Afghanistan, the hijacking threw the Taliban government into a quandary. Kabul's reaction was to say it would not negotiate with the hijackers. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar told Time: We trust the British government to take any action they deem fit, which sounded like an invitation for a commando raid. His government, however, had a very different reaction when an Indian Airlines flight was hijacked to Afghanistan last December. In that case, the Taliban demanded that India negotiate with the hijackers, who demanded the release of jailed Islamic militants, and refused New Delhi's request to allow Indian commandos to storm the plane. When the hijackers secured the release of three militants, the Taliban allowed them to leave the aircraft and disappear.

The Taliban desire an opposite resolution in London, and are demanding that the plane, the hijackers and all the passengers be returned--especially those who might be making a bid for freedom. T. Sreedhar, an Afghanistan expert at New Delhi's Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, says the Ariana incident is an international embarrassment for Mullah Omar and his regime. In the eyes of ordinary Afghans, Sreedhar says, the Taliban authorities stand discredited. The final passengers of Ariana's 727 had a long and unusual flight from rigorous Kabul to their last stop: Stansted's Hilton Hotel. It's no wonder many don't want to get on the flight back home.