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Indian government says reported hijacking was false alarm

NEW DELHI, India (AP) – A reported jetliner hijacking Wednesday night that sent commandos storming onto the plane turned out to be a false alarm. The government blamed the mistake on a hoax phone call and confusion aboard the aircraft.

Earlier, civil aviation officials said hijackers seized a Boeing 737 jetliner shortly after its departure from Bombay late Wednesday night, with 54 people on board.

National security force commandos surrounded the plane early Thursday at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. Fire vehicles and ambulances ringed the runway, and a fuel tanker was parked in front to prevent the jet from taking off.



Civil Aviation Minister Shahnawaz Hussain later called it a false alarm triggered by a call reporting a hijacking to an air traffic control station.

Passengers gave conflicting accounts of what occurred, with some saying the pilot informed them it was a security drill.




That prompted criticism from parliament.

”If this was an exercise, it should not have lasted more than an hour. This has put the whole nation in a state of anxiety and concern,” said Chandrakant Kharge, a member of parliament from the ruling coalition.

”This was not a drill. Until 10 minutes ago we thought it was a hijack,” Hussain said. ”It was only when the commandos entered the cockpit that even the pilots realized that it was a false alarm.”

The Alliance Air jet had departed Bombay and was headed for New Delhi when the caller reported the plane hijacked, Hussain said.

After learning of the call, the pilot, Capt. Ashwini Behl, locked the cockpit door, thinking the hijackers were hidden among the passengers, Hussain said. The passengers, he continued, apparently thought the hijackers were in the cockpit.

After the pilot landed the plane on an isolated runway at the New Delhi airport, passengers called waiting relatives by cellular phone, many of them unaware of reports of a hijacking.

”At 2:30 a.m., the pilot announced that a hijacking had taken place, but he asked us not to panic,” passenger Arun Sathe told The Associated Press. Commandos then boarded the plane, he said.

The passengers later were seen disembarking from the plane.

Airports throughout India have been on red alert status – the highest – since the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States.

”We’ve been taking all precautions and we went through the full exercise. We took no chances,” Hussain said. ”We have taken all hoax calls seriously.”

On Dec. 24, 1999, five hijackers seized an Indian Airlines flight carrying 178 passengers and 11 crew members after it left Nepal. After a weeklong standoff, hijackers left the plane after India agreed to release three prisoners. One passenger was killed.

Alliance Air is a subsidiary of state-run Indian Airlines.


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