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URGENT Hijacked Jetliner Returns to Colombia

May 24, 1988

CARTAGENA, Colombia (AP) _ A man described as mentally unstable hijacked a Colombian jet with 135 people aboard Monday and forced it to fly to Panama and Aruba after letting the passengers off. The plane later returned to Colombia where the man vanished.

The captain of the Avianca airlines Boeing 727 said the hijacker apparently jumped off the plane as it was rolling toward the terminal Monday night at the international airport in Cartagena on Colombia’s Carribbean coast.

The plane was hijacked on a domestic flight Monday morning after it took off from Medellin in northwest Colombia. It returned to Medellin, where 131 people were allowed off, then was forced to go to Panama, where it refueled, and to Aruba, an island off the coast of Venezuela.

No one was injured.

The captain, Luis Eduardo Gutierrez, told the Colombian radio chain Caracol that he informed the hijacker the plane did not have enough fuel to reach Cuba, the man’s intended destination.

Libardo Arteaga, Avianca’s spokesman in Cartagena, told radio chain RCN that no one in Cartagena - neither police nor the control tower - knew the plane was coming.

As the plane was taxiing in the darkness toward the runway in Cartagena, the captain said, the crew noticed a light in the cabin indicating that the plane’s rear stairway had been lowered.

When the plane pulled up to the terminal at the Rafael Nunez International Airport, police rushed aboard but could not find the hijacker, Gutierrez said.

The hijacker, who had gripped a hand grenade throughout, apparently fled in the darkness, Gutierrez said. Police searched slums and a swampy area around the airport.

Authorities identified the hijacker as Albeiro Jimenez, a Colombian, Gutierrez said. He had no further information about the man’s identity.

Edgar Lozano, security chief for the Colombian Civil Aeronautics Administration, said the plane landed in Cartagena at 6:57 p.m. (7:57 p.m. EDT).

The craft took off from Aruba at 6:15 p.m. EDT with almost no warning. The pilot radioed the control tower from 16,000 feet that he was heading for Cuba, said Michael Dijkhoff, public relations manager at Reina Beatrix International Airport.

It was not clear why the pilot relayed that information.

Dijkhoff said in a telephone interview that the sudden takeoff ″was a surprise. Radio communication was cut off. All of a sudden, the engines started and the plane took off.″

The hijacker was said to be carrying a pistol and two hand grenades in a suitcase. The pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer were captive aboard.

The Boeing 727 landed in Aruba at 3:45 p.m. EDT after being refueled in Panama.

On and off for the next 2 1/2 hours, authorities talked with the hijacker by radio. Dijkhoff said the man repeated demands he made in Colombia and Panama for $100,000 and safe passage to Cuba.

The plane was neither refueled nor resupplied in this tiny autonomous member of the kingdom of the Netherlands, Dijkhoff said.

The air pirate told authorities in Panama that he wanted to go to Havana after stopping in Aruba, to pick up the ransom money, said Capt. Miguel von Seidlitz, security chief at Omar Torrijos International Airport near Panama City.

At Medellin, about 200 miles southeast of Bogota, 131 people, including three flight attendants, were allowed to leave the plane, said Yezid Castano, the Colombian Civil Aeronautics Administration chief.

Earlier, Capt. Edgard Lozano, the administration’s security chief, said 135 people got off at Medellin.

Eduardo Guerrero, administrator at the Panamanian airport, told reporters in Panama City that the man was ″desquiciado″ - Spanish for mentally unbalanced. Von Seidlitz also said the hijacker ″could be crazy.″

Castano told a news conference in Bogota the hijacker said he wanted the money because he is suffering from a fatal disease and wants to spend his last days happily.

The hijacker demanded the money in Panama, but because of a banking crisis there the hijacker was told that payment was impossible, Castano said.

Castano said released passengers reported the hijacker was short, blond, dressed in sports clothes and appeared to be about 30 years old.

″Everything happened very fast, but there was no panic,″ passenger Luis Fernando Piedrahita told the Caracol network.

Another passenger, Javier Robledo, said he sat next to the hijacker, who gave a note to a flight attendant and she led him to the cockpit, Robledo told Caracol.

″Both the hijacker and the flight attendant were very nervous,″ Robledo said. ″Nothing happened, and 10 minutes after going back to the airport the pilot told everyone they should get off the plane.″

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