There were growing indications Monday that an apparent hijacking attempt on an El Al airliner Sunday may have been a case of security guards reacting to an argument between a passenger and a stewardess.
Initial reports said the passenger, who is to be transferred from Turkish custody to Israeli Shin Bet security agents later on Monday, tried to stab a stewardess and rush the locked cockpit. But Israel Radio reported Monday that after twice going from his tourist class seat to the business class area to ask for water, the passenger was told by a stewardess to return to his seat prior to landing.
He then pushed the stewardess, the radio said, after which two security guards jumped him and found the knife.
Earlier it was reported that security guards on the jetliner overpowered a suspected "hijacker" who tried to storm the cockpit, apparently armed with a pen knife.
The incident occurred on El Al Flight 581, en route from Tel Aviv to Istanbul. None of the 170 passengers were harmed and the plane landed safely, said Oktay Cakirlar, an official at Istanbul's Ataturk International Airport.
The semi-official Anatolia news agency identified the hijacker as a 23-year-old Arab with an Israeli passport. Later Israeli media reports identified him as Tawfiq Fuqara, a resident of the Ba'eina Nujidat village, located in northen Israel.
Passengers said the man threatened a flight attendant, then tried to kick in the door to the cockpit. But he was unable to break in because the door was locked, AP reported.
Two security guards posing as passengers quickly overpowered the man, who was armed with a knife. "Someone from the front of the plane went with a knife to the girl from the crew, she pushed him, and she cried," an Israeli passenger, told reporters at the airport. "One of the El Al security came and pushed him to the floor."
Cakirlar, the Turkish official, said the Boeing 757 sent out a hijacking signal as it approached Istanbul. "The terrorist is in custody at the police station at the airport," he said.
As a result, Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport was temporarily closed Sunday night in order to re-assess the security situation and to determine how the man managed to smuggle a pocketknife past the stringent ground security checks. The airport was re-opened a short while later.
The general manager of El Al confirmed the suspect was an Israeli Arab but refused to identify him. "What we know is that just some minutes before landing, one of the passengers tried to reach the cockpit with what we assume now is a small pocket knife," the general manager told The Associated Press. "Then within some seconds he was taken under control of our security guards and the event was terminated."
Passengers left the airport nearly four hours after the plane landed. Authorities conducted a body search as well as a detailed search of their bags during the security checks.
Later in the day, Turkey's private NTV television reported that Fukara told Turkish interrogators Monday that he wanted to divert the plane back to Tel Aviv and crash it into a building in a September 11-like attack.
© 2002 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )