Hijacked Iraq Jet Crashes, Killing 62 : Two Hurl Grenades, Force Airliner Down in Saudi Arabia

Times Staff Writer

An Iraqi Airways jetliner en route here from Baghdad crashed in the desert of northern Saudi Arabia on Thursday, shortly after being hijacked by unknown gunmen, officials here reported.

Jordanian and Saudi authorities said that 62 people were killed in the crash near Arar, 60 miles south of the Saudi-Iraqi border and 250 miles southwest of Baghdad.

The Saudi Defense Ministry said there were 107 people on board the Boeing 737--91 passengers and 16 crew members and security officers. Saudi Arabia said there were more than 40 survivors. Jordan said in a statement that there were 30 survivors.

Occurring as it did in the opening hours of a new Iranian offensive in its long war with Iraq, the reported hijacking was linked in initial news dispatches to that conflict, but it was not clear that the episode was related in any way to the fighting.

Iraqis Blame Iran

The Bahrain-based Gulf News Agency quoted an Iraqi government official as saying that "two agents of the Iranian regime" tried to hijack the airliner. The agency quoted the official as saying that one of the two hijackers was killed by a security officer and that the other died in the crash.

In Beirut, a spokesman for a previously unknown group calling itself the Revolutionary Work Organization claimed that it blew up the plane to press for the release of three "revolutionaries" being held in Iraq.

Later, in a call to a Western news agency in Beirut, the pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War) group also claimed responsibility for the hijacking.

Former Jordanian Interior Minister Suleiman Aarar, who was a passenger in the first-class section of the plane, said two hijackers detonated at least two hand grenades as they tried to take over the plane.

'Like Lightning'

"It all happened like lightning about an hour after we took off from Amman," Aarar told reporters when he arrived back in Amman 10 hours after the crash.

"The captain had just announced that we'd entered Saudi airspace when one passenger from the economy class jumped up with a hand grenade and ran toward the cockpit," Aarar said. "Three security men jumped up and tried to stop him and wrestled to the floor, but he slipped out of their grasp and crawled into the cockpit."

Aarar said the hijacker did not identify himself or say why he was trying to hijack the plane.

"The door (of the cockpit) was slammed shut. Then there was loud noises and screaming from the cockpit and behind in the economy section. A few moments later, there was an explosion inside the cockpit," Aarar said.

"Then right after that there was another explosion in the economy class compartment and pistol shots in the cockpit," Aarar said. "The back of the plane was on fire and the cabin was filled with smoke."

After the smoke appeared in the cabin, Aarar said, "Oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling and we put them on our faces. Then the plane started swaying and began a sharp descent, a nose-dive.

"It hit the ground very hard and the seat cushions came off and we were all on the floor," he said. "The fuselage split into two, with the two pieces on the ground about 200 or 300 yards apart."

He said that an attendant pulled him and his brother Khaled from under the seats and that all three rushed out of the burning plane.

A doctor in Arar told ABC News he treated survivors for burns and bullet wounds they apparently suffered in the fight that broke out between the hijackers and security officers.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman said there were no Americans aboard the plane. The nationalities of most of the passengers were not immediately known.

The Gulf News Agency quoted the Iraqi official as saying the two hijackers were traveling on Lebanese passports and that they had arrived in Baghdad on a flight from Yugoslavia.

In a telephone call to a Sunni Muslim radio station in Beirut, a man claiming to speak for the Revolutionary Work Organization warned that more attacks will be launched against Iraqi targets if the men it claimed were being held by Iraq were not released within 72 hours.

The caller claiming to represent Islamic Jihad said the hijacking was carried out "in cooperation with the brotherly Al Dawaa group."

The caller said Al Dawaa, an Iraqi underground group composed of Shia Muslims loyal to Iran, had not meant to blow up the airliner, merely to hijack it "as a means of pressuring Iraq." The caller said he did not know the cause of the explosion.

In Paris, Iraqi Ambassador Mohammed Sadiq Maschat asserted that the attack was "a crime of the Iranian regime."

An announcement by Saudi Arabia's Defense Ministry said nothing about a hijacking, reporting only that the plane struck the ground 800 yards from the runway at Arar. It said that the pilot had been trying to make an "emergency landing" and that the plane burst into flames.

A photograph broadcast on Jordanian state television showed the wreckage as almost totally blackened by fire, leaving only a skeleton.

Iraqi aircraft have been the occasional target of hijackings by Iraqis, particularly Shia Muslim citizens of that country who profess allegiance to the revolutionary government of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran. Iran's government remained silent Thursday on the airplane disaster.

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