'Wedding party' a ruse for refuge bid

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 February, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 February, 2000, 12:00am

Almost a quarter of the passengers who boarded the Ariana aircraft in Kabul claimed to be going to a wedding party in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif as a cover story for a journey they hoped would end with them being granted asylum in Europe.

The group of about 40 passengers, including women and children, were dressed in their best clothes and joked with airport officials about the good time they would have staying with their relatives.

The wedding story was invented to explain the large amount of luggage they were taking with them.

They had each paid about US$10 (HK$78) for tickets on the internal flight that was due to last little more than 40 minutes, but ended up more than four days later having landed several thousand kilometres away.

The group all came from families who opposed the ruling Taleban Government and apparently hoped to be given refugee status in western Europe.

Nabi Misdaq, an Afghan who is carrying out research at Sussex University, said he had spoken to Taleban officials in Kabul who had seen the group board the plane.

'They told me there was a large group of women and children all dressed up in the best dresses who said they were going to a family wedding in Mazar,' Mr Misdaq said. 'They were all very jolly and looked very happy.

'In Afghanistan there are two things that are sacrosanct, weddings and funerals, so nobody questioned them about why they needed to take so much luggage on such a short trip.

'It was the perfect story really, because people would have thought they were taking gifts for the wedding.' Wedding ceremonies in Afghanistan often last for several days and it would have been unremarkable for guests to need a large number of suitcases to carry gifts.

Officials at Kabul airport had accepted the story and had not searched the women passengers, which would have made it easy for them to smuggle weapons on board the aircraft.

But Mr Misdaq said the Taleban authorities had been able to check out the story since the plane left Kabul on Sunday, and had found people in the group were not related.

'It seems there were several different families and the men got the idea of hijacking the aircraft and arranged for their wives and children to come along on the same flight,' he said.

Investigations in Kabul showed the group came from wealthy families who had been opposed to the Taleban Government.

'These people all knew that they had no chance of getting any status under Taleban rule and had lost their privileges. They were just hoping to start a new life somewhere else,' he said.

Passengers who were released from the hijacked aircraft on Monday after it arrived at London's Stansted airport told police many of the passengers appeared to be related to the hostage-takers and the 'wedding party' apparently remained in good spirits throughout.