JERUSALEM, Nov. 12 (JTA) The hijacking of a Russian airliner to southern Israel has ended after the lone Chechen hijacker, described by authorities as “unstable,” surrendered and released all 58 passengers and crew unharmed.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who had ordered his plane to turn homeward to Israel, resumed his flight to Washington on Sunday morning for a scheduled visit with President Clinton after the incident was resolved.
The chief of staff of the Israel Defense Force, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, later called the incident “a good exercise for the army and security forces.”
But Israel’s attitude was far from dismissive when it received the initial reports several hours earlier that a plane en route from the Caucasus Mountain region of Dagestan to Moscow had been commandeered and the hijackers were demanding to be flown to Israel.
Israeli security went into high alert and Barak ordered his plane turned around.
Tensions were further fueled by concerns later disproved that the motive for the hijacking was linked to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the plane arrived in the region after refueling in Baku, Azerbaijan, Israel initially refused it permission to land. However, after the pilot warned his fuel was running out and the hijackers were determined to land in Israel, the plane was directed to the southern airport of Ovda, north of Eilat, under escort from the Israeli air force.
“The initial responses were negative, since we saw no reason to pick up this hot potato and as far as we knew there were no Israelis on board or any reason to get involved,” Maj.-Gen. Giora Eiland, head of the IDF’s operations branch, told a briefing afterwards.
But after the pilot said he had little fuel left, “we decided to take the appropriate steps,” said Eiland.
Located next to an air force base in the Arava desert, Ovda was the scene of another hijacking crisis five years ago when a steward on an Iranian domestic flight ordered the plane flown to Israel, where he later demanded political asylum. The passengers returned to Iran and the steward now lives in Eilat, after serving a jail sentence for the hijacking.
The hijacked Russian plane landed at Ovda around 6 A.M. Shortly afterward, the hijacker disembarked and began direct negotiations with Israeli security officials.
“We could quickly see that he did not look like someone entirely sane,” Eiland said.
“He was talking about his concerns over the takeover of the white race by the yellow race,” and “he showed us a videotape with basically the same message. But at this point, it was not clear if he was the lone hijacker. And we knew there were arms on the plane, not only because he said so, but because the pilot said so as well.”
The hijacker, identified as Ahmed Arnalhan, around 30, apparently acted on his own.
Arnalhan, who was eventually seized by Israeli security forces, said he entered the cockpit with a dummy bomb resembling a blood pressure meter.
Israeli security forces still proceeded with caution to ensure there were no more hijackers or explosives on the plane.
Light arms, including pistols, that had been in the possession of the pilot and two Russian security guards were taken off.
The pilot then disembarked, and after his report resembled the version told by the hijacker, the passengers were allowed to get off and arrangements made for their return to Russia.
Among those on the plane were the Dagestani finance minister. But reports said it was not clear whether the hijacker knew that he was on board.