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Ethiopian hijack victims arrive home

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- Former hostages on an Ethiopian military plane have told of their fear at being hijacked to Sudan.

The 44 passengers and seven crew arrived at the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on Saturday afternoon after a two-day ordeal in which nobody was injured.

The five hijackers, four men and one women, are being questioned by Sudanese authorities after their surrender in Khartoum, a local newspaper said.

Colonel Amare Awbay, captain of the Antonov 12 plane, was among the first off the plane to be met by his wife and 12-year-old son.

He told how he been carrying air force personnel and their families, including five children, on an internal flight when he was forced at gunpoint to take the plane to neighbouring Sudan.

The hijack began shortly after take-off from Bahr Dar in the northwest of the country when the hijackers burst into the cockpit.

They demanded to be taken to Saudi Arabia, but the plane was not carrying enough fuel, so they settled on Sudan where a nine-hour standoff occurred.

"There was a knock on the door of the cockpit 10 minutes after we had taken off and we were told one of the passengers was seriously ill," Awbay said.

"Two men entered the cockpit area supporting what looked like a very sick young woman."

He began to return to Bahr Dar when two other men rushed into the cockpit, one pulling out a pistol and pointing it at his head.

Two others took grenades from the boots of the young woman.

The hijackers asked to speak with representatives of the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and the United Nations after landing in Khartoum, eventually agreeing to speak with six Sudanese Cabinet ministers who had arrived at the airport.

Workie Fente, 27, a passenger on the plane with her eight-year-old son, said they had all been frightened but had remained calm.

She told the Associated Press: "We all remained in our seats as ordered by the hijackers, so there was no movement in the cabin.

"Our serious problem was that the children were asking for water all the time."

The hijackers were identified as military pilot trainees who had dropped out of flight school.

They were quoted in Al-Rai Al-Akhar newspaper as having said their action was to protest against economic and political conditions in Ethiopia.

The hijackers have reportedly asked for political asylum, but Ethiopian officials have said they plan to request extradition of the five.

No official request has been made yet, Ambassador Abdel Rahman Hamza, an official with the Sudanese government spokesman's office, said.

Any request that is made will be considered, he added.

Ethiopian officials said the five were would-be economic migrants who should face criminal charges for air piracy.

"They wanted to go into exile for a better life," government political adviser Kinfe Abraham said.

He said they had no direct links to students whose April 18 protest for academic freedom at Addis Ababa University degenerated into riots in which up to 41 people were killed.

"It's possible that the events of the week before influenced and encouraged them, but there is no direct connection between the two groups of people," Abraham said.

"There is an extradition agreement with Sudan and they should be deported."

Sudanese and Ethiopian ministers are expected to discuss the hijacking at a meeting on Monday in Addis Ababa.

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Ethiopian News Agency

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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