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Wed 27 Aug 2008 02:33 AM

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Hijackers force Sudanese plane to Libya

Egyptian authorities refuse Sunair Boeing 737 with 95 passengers permission to land.

A Sudanese passenger plane was hijacked on Tuesday after leaving war-torn Darfur and has been forced to land in Libya, Sudanese and Libyan authorities said.

Libya's Civil Aviation Authority said 95 passengers were on the Boeing 737/200 plane which landed at the airport at Kufrah, an oasis town in the country's southeast, Libya's state news agency Jana reported.

There was confusion over the identity and affiliation of the hijackers.

The Arabic television channel Al-Jazeera said the 10 hijackers were from a branch of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), one of the original Darfur rebel groups.

It said they were followers of Abdel Wahed Mohammed Al-Nur whose faction refused to sign the 2006 peace agreement with the government. But this was immediately denied by a spokesman for the Abdel Wahed faction of SLM.

"We took no part in this hijacking at all. It is completely against our aims, values and objectives. We condemn this hijacking with a strong voice," spokesman Yahya Al-Bashir said, speaking by telephone from Britain.

"The [Civil Aviation] Authority has granted permission for the plane to land at the airport out of humanitarian concern after the pilot told the authorities that the plane had run out of fuel," Jana news agency said, quoting an unnamed Libyan aviation official.

Three senior members of a former Darfur rebel movement which has signed a peace accord with the government were among the passengers, a spokesman for the group said.

Members of the Darfur regional government were also aboard, the Egyptian state news agency MENA said.

The plane, belonging to Khartoum-based private airline Sunair, had just left from the South Darfur capital bound for Khartoum.

"About half an hour after takeoff a hijacker demanded to go to Cairo as a destination," said a Sudanese Civil Aviation Authority spokesman, Abdel Hafiz Abdel Rahim.

MENA reported that four men seized the aircraft. Egyptian authorities refused it permission to land in Egypt and the plane changed course towards Libya, Arabic TV channel Al-Jazeera said.

Hamdi Hassan Al-Tahar, security manager at Sunair, said the plane had 77 passengers and five crew aboard.

"We have no information about who hijacked the plane and we have had no contact with the passengers," he said.

The Darfur region has been a conflict area since a rebellion against Khartoum's rule broke out more than five years ago. International experts say more than 2.5 million Darfuris have been driven from their homes and 200,000 people killed in the violence.

Sudan puts the death toll at about 10,000. Insurgents are split into more than dozen factions.

Three senior members of a former Darfur rebel group were aboard the hijacked plane, a spokesman said.

Mohammed Bashir of the Sudan Liberation Movement's Minni Arcua Minnawi faction identified them as an adviser to Minnawi, the movement's land commissioner, and one of the architects of the Darfur peace agreement of 2006.

"We had three senior members on the plane, and some other people. They got on and someone hijacked it," he said.

A source close to the Sudanese civil aviation authorities said there was a scuffle at Nyala airport as the group tried to board with weapons.

Minni Minnawi was the most influential Darfur rebel leader to sign the peace agreement, which most groups rejected.

The SLM become a partner in the national government but Minnawi left Khartoum several months ago and has been distancing himself from the government, political sources say. (Reuters)

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