In a bizarre Middle Eastern hijacking, a disgruntled flight attendant commandeered an Iranian aircraft carrying more than 170 passengers Tuesday. The jet landed at an Israeli air force base as it was about to run out of fuel.
No one was injured in the hijacking, which began during takeoff from Tehran. The armed steward, an unidentified Iranian in his 30s, surrendered about an hour after arriving at Ovda air base in the Negev desert of southern Israel, telling Israeli officials he had grown "tired of life in Iran." He first said he wanted asylum in the United States, but later asked to stay in Israel.
Although the flight attendant apparently had no political motives for his endeavor, the hijacking immediately became politicized.
Several members of the Israeli Knesset, or Parliament, pushed the government to hang on to the plane--and possibly the passengers--to bargain with Iran for information on the fate of Ron Arad, an Israeli military navigator whose plane was shot down by pro-Iranian guerrillas in Lebanon nine years ago.
Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency fueled the political flames with a charge that the hijacking was an Israeli plot confirming Israel's terrorist nature and demanded the return of the plane, passengers and hijacker.
Five passengers, meanwhile, asked for asylum in Israel.
The Kish Air Boeing 707 left Tehran at about 9 a.m. heading for the vacation island of Kish, 650 miles southeast in the Persian Gulf. Instead, about an hour and a half later, the holiday-bound passengers were informed by loudspeaker that they had been hijacked. They were never told where they were headed.
However, after landing they saw Hebrew letters at an airport and eventually disembarked at an Isaeli military terminal.
Israeli television showed dozens of Muslim men on their knees in the terminal for noon prayers, and seated women in black chadors. The Iranians appeared nervous in the hands of Israelis, until soldiers treated them to lunch and cold drinks. The Iranians were to spend the night at the base before an expected return today.
Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the Israeli army chief of staff, said the hijacker would remain in Israeli custody rather than be extradited. He did not say what would happen to the passengers seeking asylum.
Shahak said the steward "was sick of being in Iran, prepared a pistol, hijacked the plane and forced the crew to come here." Israeli radio reported that the attendant had tried to quit his airline job some time ago, but his request was denied.
The pilot had asked for permission to land in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, but both countries refused him. Jordan's King Hussein reportedly called Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to warn him that the Iranian plane was heading Israel's way.
Islamic-ruled Iran is one of Israel's principal enemies in the Middle East and backer of such other enemies as the Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
Rabin said he overrode his own policy against aiding hijackers to allow the plane to land because it was about to crash. "What was reported to me was that the plane had little fuel, and I did not want to be a partner or to bear responsibility for the crash of a plane full of passengers," Rabin said.
He said he directed the plane away from Tel Aviv, where the pilot had asked to land, to the sparsely populated desert area in case there was a bomb aboard.
Israel Radio picked up the conversation between the pilot and air traffic controllers. "We must make a crash landing or land in Israel," the pilot said. "We must land in Tel Aviv. We cannot proceed. Did you copy? We are low in fuel. We are a hijacked aircraft. We must make a crash landing."