Air Passengers Foil Hijack Attempt on Plane Leaving Cape Town

SOUTH AFRICA: South African police and air transport authorities are holding separate inquiries into the attempted hijacking of a passenger jet near Cape Town at the weekend.

21-year-old man was arrested after allegedly trying to force his way into the cockpit of the Johannesburg-bound aircraft in a bid to have it diverted to Mozambique.

The man was said to have threatened an air hostess with a hypodermic needle and syringe before being confronted by two passengers and an off-duty pilot who knocked him unconscious.

The mid-air drama took place on Saturday morning, 35 minutes after the South African Airlines (SAA) flight, with 129 passengers on board, left Cape Town International Airport at its scheduled time of 9.40am.

The alleged hijacker, due in court today, was reported to be a Zimbabwean student attending the University of Cape Town.

Stuart Farrow, transport spokesman for opposition party Democratic Alliance, called for "immediate and decisive action" on any security shortcomings, given South African airports had already "earned a less-than-favourable reputation for lost and stolen luggage", as well as for a number of robberies.

"South Africa will host the Soccer World Cup in 2010 and we need to show the world that our airspace and our planes are safe and secure," he said.

Both police and airport authorities are seeking to establish how the weapon used in the attack was smuggled on board. The suspect was said to have walked calmly from his seat in economy class to the cockpit door, where he demanded that the plane be diverted to Mozambique's capital, Maputo.

Witnessing the incident, off-duty pilot Neil Hodgkins and passengers Ian Thomson and Raymond Burke attacked the man and punched him unconscious. They then tied him to a seat with a belt.

Among the other passengers on board was Vytjie Mentor, an African National Congress MP.

Landing back at Cape Town, the plane was stormed by a police taskforce, which created further confusion and trauma. Some bystanders, including Mr Thomson, complained of being struck by police.

SAA played down the incident, saying all of its aircraft had armoured cockpit doors installed after 9/11, and that "at no point was the security of the cockpit called into question".