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74 ex-hostages clamor for asylum in Britain; Home secretary makes it clear he wants all to return to Afghanistan


LONDON -- There may be less dangerous ways to get from Afghanistan to Britain than to ride on a hijacked Afghan jet and sit on an airport tarmac for more than 76 hours.

But now that they're here, 74 ex-hostages from the Afghan airliner hijacked to England this week don't want to go home.

The hijack standoff at Stansted airport outside London ended peacefully with the release of all passengers early yesterday.

Of the 150 people who left the plane, 21 are under arrest and 74 want to stay here, turning the hijack drama into a refugee "crisis."

While police and politicians were searching for answers to what the British government should do with the asylum-seekers, the European representative of Afghanistan's fundamentalist Islamic Taliban government had an opinion on what the British should do: Send them all home.

'A big headache'

"If you open the doors to this kind of asylum, you will see airplanes coming every day and then you have a big headache," Gen. Rahmatullah Safi told British Broadcasting Corp.

British Home Secretary Jack Straw told the House of Commons that 60 adults and 14 dependents had applied for asylum and that he would handle the applications.

While promising to consider every application fairly, Straw made it clear that he wanted all of the passengers to go home.

"I would wish to see removed from this country all those on the plane as soon as reasonably practicable," he said. "While I must and will act in accordance with the law, I am utterly determined that nobody should consider that there can be any benefit to be obtained by hijacking."

By taking a tough stand, the British government was moving into line with popular opinion -- people here are concerned that the country is an easy target for asylum-seekers.

Campaigners for refugee and human rights groups urged the government to consider the asylum claims carefully in light of the horrors of life in Afghanistan these days.

"The truth is this is a desperate act by desperate men, desperate to get their families to safety," said Nick Hardwick of the Refugee Council.

"It doesn't excuse it at all, but it doesn't mean we can return people to a very dangerous situation without very careful thought."

Those who hijacked the plane might face dire consequences -- even the death penalty -- if returned to Afghanistan, according to Safi, the Taliban representative.

"The hijackers, the terrorists, these people should be punished," he said.

Long journey for 1-hour flight

The hijack drama began early Sunday, when the Ariana Airlines Boeing 727 was bound on a flight scheduled for less than an hour from Kabul to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

But it never reached its destination. Instead, the plane was commandeered by hijackers and hopscotched through central Asia, letting off passengers, refueling in Moscow and landing early Monday morning at Stansted airport.

The former military base, now a regional facility, 25 miles north of London usually handles charter flights and budget airlines.

But it is designated as Britain's airport to handle hijack situations.

Police, fire and ambulance services assembled, and crack military teams dug in, as the long siege began.

By taking a gentle approach, negotiators tried to win the trust of the hijackers and succeeded in extracting 10 passengers amid the siege.

The tensest moments occurred after four crew members escaped through a cockpit window late Tuesday. Police said "significant threats" were made.

A flight attendant was later shoved down the rear steps of the plane and sustained a cut on the forehead.

Communication was restored, and the passengers were released before dawn yesterday, many of them looking dazed and hungry.

The extraordinary drama left police unsure what the motive was for the hijacking.

"It only became clear in the last hour that the people on board were expressing concern about the political situation in Afghanistan," Essex Chief Constable David Stevens said.

"For the first 75 hours they didn't talk about the political situation at all."

Although he said the motive was unclear, Stevens said he had no doubt that this was a hijacking.

"I can certainly categorically state that when you find four knives, two detonators, two grenades and a knuckle-duster, in my opinion, that is a hijack," he said.

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