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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hijacked Plane Hops East to West




A group of hijackers who commandeered an Afghan passenger jet hopscotched from Central Asia to Moscow to London, where police on Monday pledged that negotiations would go on "as long as it takes" to free the remaining more than 150 hostages.


Expecting a long wait and eager to defuse tension, police supplied fresh food and medical supplies to the Boeing 727 of Afghanistan's national airline Ariana at Stansted airport near London.


The hijackers, who are believed to be demanding the release at home of a prominent Afghan opposition leader, freed eight hostages in London. About 20 passengers had already been released at two Central Asian stops and in Moscow after the plane with 186 people on board was hijacked during a flight from Kabul to the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif.


The eight released at Stansted "tell us they were very well treated while they were on board," said John Broughton, assistant chief constable of Essex police.


The plane was hijacked by eight armed men Sunday morning after it took off from the Afghan capital. According to Russian television reports, the hijackers told the passengers to lower their heads and stay in their seats, and ordered the pilots to fly to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. On the tarmac in Tashkent, the plane was surrounded by troops, and roads to the airport were blocked. In return for hot meals and fuel, the hijackers released four men, five women and a child.


Four hours after it landed in Uzbekistan, the plane took off. It touched down later in the northern Kazakh city of Aktyubinsk after springing a leak in its right fuel tank. The leak was repaired, and more food was brought on board, while three more people were allowed to get off. Negotiations in Aktyubinsk were conducted in English, Interfax reported, and the pilots were given the choice of three cities for their next stop: Moscow, St. Petersburg or Kiev.


The plane landed at Sheremetyevo Airport's Terminal 1 in Moscow at about 10 p.m. and was immediately surrounded by dozens of security officers. NTV television described the hijackers as "quite resolute" and said they demanded fuel and removal of barricades that security forces had placed on the runway.


Alexander Zdanovich, spokesman for the Federal Security Service, said the hijackers freed 10 more passengers and asked only for fuel, food and for the plane's toilets to be cleaned. After nearly four hours on the ground, the plane took off again.


The plane entered British air space shortly after midnight and was directed to Stansted, a secluded and relatively small airport where Britain's anti-hijack squads train for rescue missions. The jet was immediately surrounded by police, military and safety vehicles, and police began negotiating with the hijackers.


Afghan civil aviation authorities in Kabul said all the passengers were Afghans, including 35 members of one family that was on its way to a wedding.


The identity of the gunmen remained unclear. British officials did not disclose what political demands, if any, the hijackers put forth. But a diplomat familiar with earlier negotiations when the plane landed in Moscow said those holding the plane sought to free a prisoner held in the Afghan city of Kandahar.


Afghanistan's ruling Taliban movement said the hijackers had demanded the release from custody of Ismail Khan, a former Afghan regional governor who was allied with the government the Taliban overthrew.


The Taliban chief, Mullah Mohammad Omar, blamed opposition leader Ahmad Shah Masood for the hijack, saying the hijackers were closely linked to him.


"We will not negotiate with them. We will not accept their demands," Omar said in a statement.


The Afghan opposition has denied any involvement in the taking of the plane.


Known as the "Lion of Herat," Khan was detained by the Taliban movement after it swept to power in 1996.


"He is a excellent commander who had done very well against the Russians in the Jihad years," said a spokesman for the Taliban in New York.


British police vowed to talk for as long as it takes to safely free the passengers and end the hijack.


But other options would not be ruled out if passenger safety was put at risk. Police also said the Boeing 727 would not be allowed to take off again.


The hijacking of the Afghan plane follows the commandeering of an Indian Airways plane and 155 hostages six weeks ago. That plane, seized by militants in favor of independence from India for the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, spent a week in the Afghan city of Kandahar. The hijacking ended when Indian officials agreed to release three jailed militants. Taliban officials brokered the deal.


Ariana Airlines, a state-owned enterprise, has been barred by the United Nations from making international flights because Taliban leaders have refused to turn over Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, a suspected terrorist leader. Bin Laden, indicted by the U.S. government for masterminding the bombings of two American embassies in East Africa in 1998, is living in Afghanistan.