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Thursday, 6 December, 2001, 14:57 GMT
Hijackers feared life under Taleban
The Afghan hijackers in court drawing
The hijackers said they were trying to escape certain death
John Andrew

Many of those desperate to flee their homeland stow away in boats or lorries; some hide under Eurostar trains, but in February 2000 a group of Afghans made history by becoming the first asylum-seekers to hijack their way to the United Kingdom.

When Ali Safi and his fellow hijackers boarded an Ariana domestic flight in Kabul they brought wives and children with them.

When asked about their trip, they said they were going to a wedding in Mazar-e-Sharif.

But a quarter of an hour into the flight they produced guns and hand grenades and told passengers - most of whom had no knowledge of the plot - that they were hijacking the plane.

Police with hijacked plane at Stansted airport
The hijackers surrendered after three days
A journey that would have taken just 40 minutes was turning into a five-day nightmare for those on board.

During that time the hijackers would threaten to blow up the plane and to kill passengers one by one.

One steward was struck on the head and pushed down the aircraft steps. But after a three-day siege at Stansted all left the plane unharmed.

Why though, did the hijackers take such extraordinary risks with their own lives and those of the passengers?

Their argument was that hijacking a plane was the only way to escape certain death at the hands of the Taleban.

Secret group

The leading hijacker was Ali Safi, a university lecturer and the head of an underground group called The Young Intellectuals of Afghanistan.

We thought we were in a circle of fire. The fire of the Taleban was surrounding us

Ali Safi
Hijack leader

They operated in great secrecy, corresponding in code. Their aims were to bring democracy to their beleaguered country, restore women's rights and campaign against the al-Qaeda terror camps which the Taleban had allowed to flourish.

But a list of members of the group had fallen into the hands of the Taleban - and 17 people had already gone missing.

"We thought we were in a circle of fire," Safi told the Old Bailey. "The fire of the Taleban was surrounding us."

They met to consider the options - escaping to Northern Alliance-controlled territory or to Pakistan - but both were ruled out as too dangerous.

Seizing a plane, they argued, was the only way out.

"It was flight - or death," the court heard.

Life under Taleban

Safi gave a graphic account of life under the Taleban.

On one occasion, he and a student had been arrested for playing chess, banned by the Taleban as un-Islamic.

Both were taken to a basement room and beaten with steel cables.

They were released after the intervention of a local priest.

Safi said he had also witnessed the stoning to death of a woman friend, who had dared leave her house without her husband's permission.

"Her eight-year-old daughter was begging people not to throw stones," he said.

The jury were also invited by the defence to see a gruesome film of a Taleban beheading, in which the head of a rapist is sawn off with a kitchen knife.

The jury decided not to view it.

Siege success

The handling of the three-day siege at Stansted was seen as a triumph for Essex Police and their team of trained negotiators.

They decided to play "a long game," maintaining a calm dialogue with the hijackers and keeping the aircraft replenished with food, medicines, and sanitary supplies.

The worst moment came after the crew escaped one night by dropping a rope from the flight deck.

When the hijackers realised their only means of flying away had gone, panic broke out.

Two hostages at hotel window
Some 150 hostages were released unharmed

Someone on board the plane told the control tower that passengers would be killed one by one unless the pilot returned to the aircraft.

The hijack took place at the height of a controversy over asylum-seekers.

The then Home Secretary Jack Straw took a tough stand, telling the Commons that "I would wish to see removed from this country all those on the plane as soon as reasonably practicable."

Her eight-year-old daughter was begging people not to throw stones

Ali Safi
Of the passengers, 81 did indeed return voluntarily, but 89 others remain in the UK.

Seventeen have been granted asylum - the rest are at various stages of the appeal process.

Even if they are refused refugee status, they could still be given exceptional leave to remain.

Ironically, the hijackers had not chosen the UK as their final destination.

They had wanted to go to Geneva, but during a stopover in Moscow they were under pressure from the Russians to leave quickly.

The pilots did not have the right maps, and told the hijackers that they had flown to London frequently and could get there without maps.

So it was that Switzerland was swapped for Stansted.

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