One of the world's oddest hijackings ended peacefully Thursday amid reports that the hijackers were secretly in league with their hostages in a plan to seek asylum in Britain. During their four days on the ground at Stansted Airport near London, the armed hijackers of the Afghan airliner made no political demands and remained on suspiciously friendly terms with many of the 151 passengers. Under the front-page headline "Awayday to Asylum," the Daily Mail of London noted the surprisingly large amount of luggage on board the plane for what was originally intended as a 40-minute flight inside Afghanistan. The Daily Telegraph said at least 35 of the passengers belonged to the same wedding party. It said that guns were thought to have been smuggled on board by heavily veiled women who are frisked less thoroughly than men at Kabul airport, which has no X-ray machines. In an editorial Thursday, the Times of London said that if the asylum theory is true—and the British authorities are not yet confirming it—a harsh response to the hijackers is imperative. The "appalling and savagely repressive" conditions in Afghanistan should not influence sentencing policy, it said, though the hijackers had already been told "that they will not be sent back to Kabul, where execution without fair trial would almost certainly await them." (In a later report, the Guardian said British Home Secretary Jack Straw suggested that "anyone who had been on the flight with the intention of getting asylum would be considered part of the hijacking plot.")
Is the Israel-Syria peace process dead? Are Israel and Lebanon "on the brink of war," as the Independent of London said in its main headline Wednesday? Opinions differ. The Syrian government newspaper Al-Thawra said Tuesday that Israel's bombing raids on Lebanon have "created destructive climates that would blow up what has remained of the peace process." The Beirut daily as-Safir, which is allied with Syria, said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is trying "to drag us and the Syrians into negotiating on his own terms—terms which he knows we reject and which are nothing more than surrender on the pain of death." He is "giving us a choice: either death by murder or political death in the Rose Garden of the White House." The article, written by the paper's editor, Tala Salman, was Churchillian in tone. "It is our destiny to resist and stand up to aggression," he said. "We must pay the price for liberating our land. Our weapons are few: we have only our blood, our will, and our spirit of martyrdom to sustain us, in addition to some limited material resources."
But he also noted that Lebanon had "some support from certain Arab and international quarters that might succeed in preventing a full-scale Israeli invasion." That presumably meant Syria, the effective power in Lebanon, which, the Independent said Wednesday, may commit tens of thousands of its troops to a Lebanese-Israeli war. "Barring a miracle, war rather than peace now seems the immediate agenda for the Middle East," the paper's Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, wrote from Baalbek in Lebanon, one of the targets of Israel's blitz on the country's electrical power stations. An editorial in the Independent Thursday said "the peace process has been definitively shattered." This wasn't everyone's view, though. The Beirut daily al-Mustaqbal predicted Wednesday that Syria would comply with U.S. demands and urge Hezbollah, the Muslim terrorist movement in Lebanon which has been killing Israeli soldiers, to show restraint. It said the Americans remain optimistic that Syrian-Israeli negotiations will resume "very soon." Ha'aretz of Israel led Thursday with Barak's view that the real test of Syrian intentions will come Friday or Saturday. "If Syria stops the Hezbollah from firing Katyusha rockets on Israel's northern border after the IDF [Israeli military] allows residents to emerge from the shelters, that will be seen as an indication of Damascus's desire to settle the current crisis in Lebanon and resume talks with Israel," it said. In an editorial, Ha'aretz said it is time for Madeleine Albright to return to the Middle East.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto wants President Clinton to visit Pakistan next month, although she is persona non grata with the country's new military regime. In an interview with Asian Age of India, she said she met Clinton recently in Washington, D.C., and urged him to do so. The fact that Pakistan is being run by a military dictator is hardly the point. "It's the people of Pakistan who need to be considered," she said. "It is they who made huge sacrifices for America against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and it is these sacrifices that must be honoured by Mr Clinton." Bhutto said she was sorry that, as prime minister, she missed the chance to make peace with India, where Clinton is going March 26. "I squandered away an opportunity to build bridges and make peace with India," she said. "I held everything hostage to the Kashmir issue, and I regret that."
Die Welt of Germany, El Mundo of Spain, and the Wall Street Journal Europe all led Thursday on the European Union's decision to open an antitrust investigation into Microsoft's latest computer operating system, Windows 2000, due to be launched worldwide Feb. 17. The Italian papers mainly led on the wave of hacker attacks on several of the Web's best-known sites, with La Repubblica of Rome commenting: "So there really was a worm in the 2000 apple after all." Under the headline "Fear Online," the paper said the hackers are rebels against the future, just like the desperados who once tried to sabotage the spread of the railroads in the American West.
The Moscow Times said Wednesday that acting Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to fight the presidential election next month without revealing his policies. He told a group of university students he doesn't want to share his program with anybody because it would become "an object of attack." He said, "As soon as it is made public, it will be gnawed at and torn to pieces." The paper said in an editorial that he could afford this extraordinary luxury because he is riding high in the polls and every other serious candidate has dropped out—notably former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who, according to a Feb. 5 piece in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, would have been backed by Mikhail Gorbachev.
The paper interviewed the last Soviet leader at a conference in Geneva and asked him who he wanted to be president of Russia. "I know Putin. He is an intelligent and serious man," he said. But Gorbachev said he would like to know what Putin's plans were before voting for him. Gorbachev's first choice, though, would have been Primakov, "a serious and solid man on whom one could rely." But Primakov's "knees gave way" under media savaging. "So far I can see no one to vote for," Gorbachev concluded. "Perhaps I shall vote against everyone."
On Monday Segodnya quoted Kremlin sources saying that Putin had personally drafted amendments to the constitution that would prolong the president's term of office to seven years, with a maximum of two terms. There was no other corroboration of the paper's claim. The Sydney Morning Herald led Thursday with a cyanide spill in Romania that is being called one of the worst environmental catastrophes in Eastern Europe. The Esmeralda mining company of Perth, Australia, is admitting responsibility for the spill of cyanide-contaminated water from a reservoir, but says its impact is still unknown. Hungarian press reports claim it is responsible for poisoning the drinking water of 2 million Hungarians and killing thousands of birds and fish along the Tisza River, Hungary's second-largest river after the Danube.
The Independent of London reported from Moscow Wednesday about making "caviar" from chicken eggs. At a chicken farm in Novo-Petrovsky, they are mixing chicken eggs with fish essence, pouring black sludge over them, and putting the mixture through a machine that produces thousands and thousands of little black pearls. They taste "remarkably similar" to real caviar, but cost $1 a pot—15 times less than sturgeon eggs, the Independent said.