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Jets Grounded by Strange Behavior

September 12, 2002

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FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) _ Reports of strange passenger behavior led two commercial flights to make unscheduled landings Wednesday. Three men on one of the jets were arrested, but authorities said neither incident appeared to be related to terrorism.

In Arkansas, Northwest Airlines Flight 979, with 94 passengers and a crew of five, was diverted to Fort Smith, Ark., because four men behaved strangely, authorities said.

U.S. Attorney Tom Gean said the men refused to obey the crew’s orders. He wouldn’t elaborate, except to say that two of them raised concerns by shaving on the flight.

After last year’s terrorist attacks, documents found in the luggage of attack leader Mohamed Atta gave what appeared to be instructions for the hijackers: ``The previous night, shave the extra hair from the body (and) pray.″

Pilots of the Northwest jet, which was traveling from Memphis, Tenn., to Las Vegas, landed at Fort Smith as a precaution, the airline said.

Officials blew open a cardboard box that belonged to one of the men. Nothing extraordinary was found, Gean said, but he would not say what the box contained.

Three of the men will be charged with interfering with a flight crew, Gean said. The fourth was released. Gean did not release their names or nationalities, or say whether they were U.S. citizens. A Sebastian County jailer said two of the men were from India and the third was from Egypt.

The flight resumed its trip later Wednesday and arrived safely in Las Vegas.

In Texas, American Airlines Flight 1702, with 50 passengers on board, returned to Bush Intercontinental in Houston after a flight attendant mistakenly thought a passenger had a knife in his pocket, authorities said. It turned out to be a folding comb, FBI spokesman Bob Doguim said.

The man, Mark Mathews, a Pakistani native from London, told Houston television station KRIV he believes his Middle Eastern heritage was the main reason he was considered suspicious. He said he got up to talk with a flight attendand and fumbled in his pocket for the comb.

``You open the comb to comb your hair, so it looks like a knife or something. So that’s what triggered the whole event off,″ Mathews said.

Flight attendants also were suspicious of another passenger who switched to a seat in the front of the plane and refused to return to his assigned seat, Doguim said.

He said no charges were filed against the men. The flight continued on later to Dallas and then Nashville, Tenn.

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