Loss of aircraft radio contact sparks Dutch hijack scare

Thu, Aug 30, 2012, 01:00

TWO DUTCH F-16 fighters were scrambled yesterday to intercept a passenger jet en route from Malaga in Spain to Schiphol airport because radio contact could not be established with the pilot as the Airbus A320 entered Netherlands airspace.

The failure to make contact sparked suspicions that the aircraft, operated by Spanish carrier Vueling, with more than 180 passengers on board, had been hijacked and there were fears of “a calamity”, the office of the national counterterrorism co-ordinator in The Hague said last night.

The F-16s were ordered to “intercept without contact” and escorted the Airbus to a section of runway on the perimeter of the airport, where it was surrounded by armed soldiers and anti-terrorist police before being searched and allowed to taxi to its terminal.

“After a negotiator spoke to the captain we were certain there were no hijackers on board,” said Martijn Peelen, a military police spokesman.

“There was never any danger,” said a spokesperson for Vueling in Madrid.

Passengers spoke to the media by mobile phone and on Twitter – and said they had not been aware of their escort over the North Sea. “We had to circle a few more times than usual and wait in the plane with the doors closed when we landed,” said one. “But there was no hijack. Everyone was calm.”

One news agency quoted an anonymous Vueling spokesperson as saying a similar incident had happened last year over France, where a Mirage fighter was scrambled as an escort until contact was established. She could not say if it was the same aircraft or pilot.

The false alarm came as a newspaper revealed the Dutch security service, AIVD, set up a special taskforce last year when it learned two Somali students had been recruited by al-Qaeda in Karachi to carry out a suicide attack on The Hague. Both were described as Dutch nationals, travelling on stolen passports.

Before yesterday’s hijack alert, part of Schiphol had been evacuated and flights delayed or cancelled after workmen digging a trench near Pier C discovered an unexploded 500kg World War bomb. It was made safe by bomb disposal experts.

Schiphol airport was used as a military airfield by occupying German troops during the war. The bomb found yesterday is believed to have been dropped by Allied bombers that destroyed the field in 1945.