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Hijacking Trial Places Pakistan in a Tough Spot

October 04, 1987|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — Salman Ali Turki, on trial here with four other Arabs for hijacking a Pan American World Airways jetliner and killing 20 passengers in Karachi last year, said that he had a "message" for Pakistan.

But his comment during a recent interview at the maximum security central jail here where the trial is taking place sounded more like a threat.

"I have a message to the Pakistan government," Turki said. "You will be in a hard position. Your choice is to satisfy the American government by hanging us, or to satisfy what you claim is your friendship and support for the Palestinian cause. The Palestinian people will never forget what you do."

Source of Tension

Turki--possibly not his real name--is a mysterious, 32-year-old, English-speaking self-described Palestinian who traveled on Libyan and Moroccan passports. Prosecutors describe him as the mastermind of the Sept. 5, 1986, hijacking that ended in a bloody massacre after the hijackers panicked and opened fire on the plane's 389 passengers and cabin crew.

In his "message" to the Pakistani government, Turki put his finger on the main source of tension in the trial that started last week:

Pakistan is the first Muslim nation supportive of the Palestinian cause that has put Palestinians on public trial for hijacking. Pakistan recognizes the Palestine Liberation Organization as the official representative of the Palestinian people.

Although U.S. officials have praised Pakistan for its firm stand against terrorism, the trial places Pakistan in an uncomfortable, vulnerable position with pro-Palestinian forces. The implication of Turki's message seemed to be that, with this prosecution, Pakistan might also find itself a target of future terrorism.

(Kuwait three years ago convicted 17 pro-Iranian Shia Muslims of bombing the U.S. and French embassies and other targets in the Persian Gulf emirate in 1983. Islamic Jihad, a radical Shia terrorist group holding American and other foreign hostages in Lebanon, has repeatedly demanded that Kuwait free the 17. Kuwait has refused.)

"We have arrested our Palestinian brothers for hijacking the airplane of our American friends," was the wry observation of Salman Taseer, a Lahore leader in the opposition Pakistan People's Party who is enjoying the discomfort of the government in the hijacking case.

Public records here, as well as court proceedings before District Judge Said Mohammed Sar Babar and an interview with the defendants, offer a rare glimpse inside the planning and execution of a terrorist act.

They show that Turki developed and directed a detailed, well-funded, master plan for the hijacking. He made two earlier trips to Pakistan--one nearly a year before the hijacking--during which he acquired ammunition and explosives in local tribal markets before recruiting younger Palestinians, including one teen-ager, to carry out the hijacking.

The plan also included such touches as airport security uniforms with badges for the hijackers and a van outfitted as a security vehicle, complete with a siren and an official-looking "Texas Sheriffs' Assn." decal on the hood.

The four hijackers drove unchallenged through an airport security gate and stormed the plane as it was boarding passengers for a flight to Frankfurt, West Germany, and then to New York. The hijackers shot a naturalized American, Rajesh Kumar, 29, of Huntington Beach, Calif., almost immediately and dumped his body on the tarmac. Kumar was apparently singled out for execution because of his nationality.

The cockpit crew escaped, and the hijackers held the Boeing 747's occupants at gunpoint for 16 hours while Pakistani commandos gathered on the airport tarmac. Then as it grew dark, the plane's auxiliary power unit apparently ran low on fuel, and the lights in the cabin dimmed and went out. The hijackers panicked and opened fire with automatic weapons and hand grenades, and the troops arrived a few minutes later to end the ordeal.

Turki did not take part directly in the hijacking but was arrested a week later as he attempted to leave the country, using a Libyan passport. He had used the same passport to enter Pakistan 45 days earlier on an "official government visit" visa granted him by the Pakistani Embassy in Tripoli, Libya.

All five men--including Palestinians identified in court records as Mustafa Bomer, 22; Fahd Jassim, 18; Khalil Kiwan, 21, and Mansoor Rashid, 21--are charged with hijacking the Pan Am jumbo jet, murdering 20 passengers and attempting to murder 31 others, who were wounded in the bloody conclusion. The punishment for hijacking in Pakistan is death by hanging.

The trial is being conducted under intense security in Pakistan's most secure jail, surrounded by an electrified fence charged with 11,000 volts, and monitored from the air by circling helicopters.

The team of attorneys appointed to prosecute the case finds itself caught between public sympathies for the Palestinian cause and public abhorrence of terrorism.

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