PEKING — The passengers and crew of a hijacked Soviet airliner that ran out of fuel and landed in China last week were returned safely to the Soviet Union two days later, the Foreign Ministry said Wednesday.
Ministry spokesman Ma Yuzhen, speaking at a regularly scheduled news briefing, refused to comment on reports that the four hijackers are under arrest in Peking. He also would not say if the plane remained in China.
In Moscow on Wednesday, the news agency Tass made the first official Soviet comment about the incident.
Tass said the plane was on a local flight when it "had to alter its course as a result of forcible actions of an armed criminal on board and landed in the northeastern part of the People's Republic of China."
Tass did not say what happened to the hijacker, when the incident occurred, what route the plane was flying or where the plane landed in China.
It said only that "the Chinese side adopted measures for finding the plane and returning the passengers and crew to the motherland as soon as possible." It thanked China for "the spirit of good neighborly cooperation" it had shown.
A Chinese official who identified himself only as Mr. Zhao had said earlier that the Soviet plane was bound from the Siberian city of Chita to North Korea when hijackers sought to divert it to South Korea.
The Antonov 24 propeller aircraft ran out of fuel and made an emergency landing on flatland in northeast China, he said.
Near the Border
It later was flown to Peking pending a settlement of the incident, said the official, who was from the city government of Hailar, Inner Mongolia. He said the plane landed in Gannan, Heilongjiang province, which is near the border with Inner Mongolia.
Chinese and East European sources reported that the plane carried 50 people.
Ma issued a brief statement and declined to answer further questions.
"On Dec. 19, a Soviet civil aviation passenger plane, an Antonov 24, was hijacked to China," his statement read. "The plane landed in the western part of Heilongjiang province. On Dec. 21, crew members and all the passengers returned to the Soviet Union safely.
"As for the case of the hijacked plane and your many questions asked by telephone, up to now all I can say is what I have said."
The Soviet Embassy declined to comment on the incident.
Gannan, which has no airport, is 12 miles from the large Heilongjiang city of Qiqihar and about 500 miles southeast of Chita.
Officials from the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Soviet Embassy in Peking were sent to Hailar, close to the Soviet border, to handle the incident, the Hailar official said. He gave no explanation of why they did not go to Gannan.
A spokesman for China's Civil Aviation Administration confirmed the hijacking but declined to discuss it in detail. "CAAC officials have been dispatched to handle it," he said.
Diplomats in Peking said it was the first known instance of a hijacking to China.
Six Chinese hijacked a domestic airliner to South Korea on May 5, 1983, and requested political asylum. In a response that led to expanded ties between Seoul and Peking, the South Koreans convicted the hijackers of violating territorial airspace.
But they were released a year later and sent to Taiwan, where they were welcomed as heroes.