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Sudanese plane hijackers surrender in Libya

by Afaf Geblawi*

Two hijackers of a Sudanese plane surrendered to Libyan authorities at a remote desert airport yesterday after freeing all passengers on board, almost 24 hours after the drama began in Darfur.
"The hijackers surrendered without any violence and the crew are safe and sound," a Libyan official said from the airport in Kufra, an oasis in the southeast of the north African country.
The two attackers, who claimed to be from Sudan's conflict-ridden region of Darfur, hijacked the plane on Tuesday shortly after take-off from Darfur's main city of Nyala on a flight to the Sudanese capital Khartoum.
They gave themselves up several hours after negotiations led to the release of all 87 passengers from the Sun Air Boeing 737 which was forced to land in Kufra on Tuesday evening after it ran short of fuel.
But they had initially refused to release the eight-member crew, demanding that the plane be refuelled for a a flight to Paris, an official said.
Libyan state television broadcast footage from Kufra, a World War II-era military airport near the Sudanese border, showing visibly tired but relieved passengers surrounded by Libyan soldiers following their liberation.
"The night was terrifying and difficult. I thank the Libyan authorities for their efforts which allowed us to be freed," a Sudanese passenger told the station.
Another passenger said the hijackers were armed with small calibre pistols.
The passengers, who included women and children, had reportedly been given water but no food and some fainted when the air conditioning failed in the searing desert heat.
The hijackers, who had refused to talk directly with Libyan officials, said they belong to the Sudanese Liberation Army, whose exiled leader Abdel Wahid Mohammed Nur lives in Paris, according to airport director Khaled Saseya.
The unnamed Libyan official who announced the surrender of the hijackers said however that the authorities could still not confirm their identities and that an investigation was being launched.
He said a 20-strong Sudanese delegation was in Kufra while a Libyan civilian airline had landed there to take the hijacked plane's passengers to their original destination of Khartoum.
Sudan foreign ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadiq condemned the hijacking and called on the Libyan authorities to deport the "terrorists" to Khartoum.
Libya's civil aviation director Mohammed Shlibaq said that two Egyptian members of the UN-led Darfur peacekeeping force, two Ethiopians and a Ugandan were among the passengers, the official JANA news agency reported.
JANA also said several Sudanese officials had been on board, including the tribal affairs adviser at the Provisional Authority in Darfur Yaqub al-Malik Mohamed Yaqub.
No Darfur movement has publicly claimed responsibility, but Sesaya said the hijackers belong to a faction of the Sudanese Liberation Army, whose exiled leader Abdel Wahid Mohammed Nur lives in Paris.
The pilot said "the hijackers claim to have coordinated with him (Nur) to join him in Paris," Saseya told JANA.
Nur, whose group was one of two Darfur movements that first rose up against the Arab-dominated government in 2003, denied any involvement while SLA commander Ibrahim al-Hillo suggested the hijackers could be Nur sympathisers.
"We don't have any relation with that hijacking. Civilians, they're angry, they'll behave like that. They may agree with Abdul Wahid but in our structure we have no decision like this to hijack a civilian aeroplane," Hillo said.
The SLA has fractured into multiple groups headed by different field commanders over the more than five years of war in Sudan's western Darfur region.
The United Nations says up to 300,000 people have died and more than 2.2 million fled their homes since war in Darfur erupted in February 2003. Sudan says 10,000 have been killed.
Ethnic minority rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated Khartoum regime and state-backed Arab militias, fighting for resources and power.