Two-day ordeal for passengers aboard bomb-threat plane

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 August, 2009, 12:00am

The Afghan airliner that was refused permission to land in Urumqi on Sunday was turned back after a tip-off that East Turkistan separatists had placed a bomb on board, a senior Xinjiang official said.

A government newspaper said authorities received a report that the Kam Air flight could 'possibly be threatened' by terrorists.

Mainland passengers who spent two days on the plane described the experience as 'nightmarish'.

The official, a member of the party's provincial political and legal committee who was involved in the decision-making process, told the Global Times the government had approved the flight plan as early as mid-June.

The flight was the maiden journey to China by Kam Air, a private airline, and its president Zamari Kamgar and senior executives were on board.

But a tip-off arrived at Xinjiang government headquarters on Sunday morning, warning that ethnic separatists would possibly launch an attack on China using the plane. Mainland authorities contacted their Afghanistan counterparts and requested them to keep the plane on the runway for an hour pending confirmation.

The confirmation never came and the plane took off. Then the mainland's intelligence network received a bomb threat, the official said.

The decision to deny entry was made after many rounds of meetings in Xinjiang and Beijing and was transmitted to the plane, a Boeing 767 carrying more than 170 passengers including five Chinese. It had already reached Kyrgyzstan airspace, about the mid-point in the three-hour journey.

Meanwhile police, soldiers and firefighters flooded the airport in Urumqi in case the crew ignored the order and carried on with the flight.

'We were not excessively sensitive. Any country's emergency response department would not neglect a terrorist threat on a civilian airplane,' the cadre said. 'The decision was made to ensure passengers' safety.'

But passengers on the plane would probably disagree.

A Chinese engineer told Xinhua that as the plane returned to Kabul and was about to touch down, a side wind almost caused it to crash.

The plane was redirected to Kandahar and made a safe landing. All passengers were held on the plane while it was searched for a bomb.