Colombia Passenger Plane Hijacked
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Airline passenger Jose Orlando Ossa didn’t find it suspicious when a man on his domestic flight over the Andes got up and went to the bathroom.
Neither, apparently, did the three federal prison guards who were supposed to be watching the man _ a suspected rebel serving time for a policeman’s death. Not until he emerged from the lavatory waving a handgun and headed for the cockpit.
``He said it was a hijacking, that it was to obtain his freedom and that he was a guerrilla,″ Ossa told reporters late Friday, after the plane’s harrowing diversion into rebel-held southern territory.
Ossa was among 22 passengers and crew aboard the Aires airlines Dash 8 turboprop, hijacked during a flight from Bogota to the southwestern provincial capital of Florencia.
All were freed unharmed after the plane touched down on a guerrilla-held southern airstrip, dropped off the hijacker, then landed safely in the southwestern city of Neiva. No other demands were made.
But the in-flight hijacking _ the second this year by a prisoner being escorted by federal guards _ could have repercussions.
Besides embarrassing the country’s scandal-plagued penitentiary system, it could rattle fledgling peace talks to end Colombia’s 36-year guerrilla conflict.
Police say the hijacker, Arnobio Ramos, was a member of the country’s largest leftist insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Ossa also said the hijacker identified himself as a member of a FARC faction based in southern Colombia.
The rebels denied Ramos was a guerrilla, though they did acknowledge the plane landed on a FARC-controlled airstrip in the southern town of San Vicente del Caguan.
``This is a common criminal,″ FARC spokesman Andres Paris told Colombia’s RCN television. ``This is not a guerrilla action. This is not a FARC action.″
Paris said the rebels had apprehended the hijacker, but gave no clear indication whether the group planned to turn him over to authorities.
San Vicente del Caguan is located in a region the government ceded to the FARC as part of the negotiations. The territory, about twice the size of New Jersey, is off-limits for soldiers and police. Officials say it has become a haven for drug traffickers and kidnappers under the FARC.
Public skepticism about the FARC’s sincerity in the negotiations is running high.
Friday’s was Colombia’s third high-profile hijacking in the last 18 months, the second involving guerrillas.
In February, a convicted murderer being transported to a prison commandeered a plane at knifepoint. He forced the plane, with 17 people aboard, to land in a northern region rife with right-wing paramilitary squads. He was killed hours later by the militias.
In April 1999, members of the country’s second-largest rebel faction, the National Liberation Army, hijacked an Avianca domestic flight with 41 passengers and crew on board. The group still holds several passengers hostage, seeking ransom and peace concessions from the government.