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Friday, 18 January, 2002, 15:54 GMT
Pilot's sympathy for jailed hijackers
Captain Said Nabi Hashemi
Captain Nabi is one of Afghanistan's most experienced pilots
Marcus George

The pilot of an Ariana Afghan Airways flight that was hijacked and forced to land in the UK has spoken of his sympathy for the perpetrators who were fleeing the persecution of Afghanistan's Taleban regime.

Brothers Ali and Mohammed Safi, the ringleaders, were jailed for five years at the Old Bailey on Friday, with six other men receiving sentences of 30 months and a further man 27 months.


During the Taleban everybody was under pressure and I have a lot of sympathy for them

Captain Nabi
The Boeing 727 was on its way to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in February 2000 when the group, armed with grenades and handguns, stormed the cockpit and demanded the crew continue to Uzbekistan.

The flight continued on to Moscow and ended up at Stansted Airport in Essex.

The Ariana's head pilot, Captain Said Nabi Hashemi, had been training young pilots when the hijack happened.

The aeroplane's captors demanded that Captain Nabi, one of the beleaguered country's most experienced pilots, fly to London.

"I feel sympathetic for them," said Captain Nabi, talking about the desperation of the hijackers to leave Afghanistan.

Wedding

"During the Taleban everybody was under pressure and I have a lot of sympathy for them.

"In my heart I love them because I know what was in their heart when they wanted to flee their own country and accept all these risks.

"But, on the other hand, they committed an act of terror and should be punished.

"They had problems with the Taleban. But this, hijacking an aeroplane, was not the right way to solve it.

"If they do not have the punishment, others may do the same thing."

The flight was busy due to a family wedding in Mazar that many passengers were allegedly attending.


We tried out best to save the passengers, save the aircraft and save ourselves

Captain Nabi
It is believed the weapons were smuggled onto the plane inside wedding gifts or concealed under burqas, the traditional covering worn by Afghan women.

"Some hijackers had their own families with them," claims Captain Nabi.

"On the last day, they separated them putting their own families in the front of the aircraft, playing with their children and laughing with their wives."

The whole crew managed to escape through a window in the cockpit and climbed to safety, after the hijackers ordered the pilots to depart for another destination the following day. In secrecy they agreed on a plan to escape.

"I know it was impossible for me to fly anymore and also the British authorities would not let us fly," said the captain.

"I talked to the hijackers and told them we needed some sleep and privacy in the cockpit. Finally they agreed.

Interrogation

"We informed the security people we were going to escape so they wouldn't shoot us. They gave us the green light."

The crew returned to Afghanistan after police questioning, uncertain of how the Taleban authorities would react.

"Before we returned some of our crew had been interrogated," said Captain Nabi.

"When we came they understood what we had been through. They welcomed us and gave us some money.

Freed hostage
74 of the 165 on board the plane asked to stay in UK
"We blamed the Taleban for the hijacking. We tried our best to save the passengers, save the aircraft and save ourselves."

Despite the majority of passengers claiming political asylum in London, Captain Nabi was anxious to return home to see his family.

"Even if I wanted to stay in London, I couldn't. My family was here in Kabul. And I am too old to start everything again," he said.

The sentencing comes in the same week as Kabul Airport, the home of Ariana Afghan Airlines, reopened to air traffic after it was shut due to damage caused by US bombing.

The national airline lost six of its fleet during US raids in October and November. Only one Russian-built transport plane and a Boeing 727 now remain.

Ariana expected to begin international flights, to Delhi and Dubai, next month.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jonathan Charles in Kabul
"The terror on the Stansted Boeing will not be forgotten"
See also:

18 Jan 02 | UK
Afghan hijackers jailed
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