Deadly Stampede After Bomb Threat to Sri Lanka International Airport

Passnegers injured, one killed after chaotic response to phoned-in bomb threat


COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- One passenger was killed and dozens were injured Thursday in a stampede to evacuate a Saudi Air plane after a bomb threat was phoned in to Sri Lanka's only international airport, air force and hospital officials said.

The passenger who died, a woman clad in a traditional Muslim gown and hijab or head scarf, hit her head on the tarmac after sliding down an escape chute, said D. Atthanayake, airport duty manager, citing preliminary inquiries.

"It was a chaotic situation," he said.

At least 20 people were admitted to the nearby hospitals while 75 others suffered bruises and other minor injuries, according air force spokesman Ajantha de Silva.

The plane, carrying 452 passengers including 22 crew members, was taxiing on the runway when the pilot received a call from the control tower about a bomb threat, de Silva said.

The plane was brought to a halt, and the emergency doors were opened. Panic-stricken passengers poured out, he said.

"The aircraft has been cleared," de Silva said, but authorities were also checking luggage and running baggage through X-ray machines in a search for explosives. "It's most probably a hoax."

He said nothing so far indicated any Tamil Tiger rebel involvement in the bomb scare.

"But investigations are continuing, nothing can be ruled out at this stage," de Silva said.

Champika Wickremesinghe, medical officer at the nearby Negombo hospital, confirmed the death.

A search operation was being carried out, but the airport has not been shut down. Saudi Air Flight SV 781 was destined for Riyadh and Jeddah, officials said.

Passengers who escaped injury were checked in to nearby hotels since it was not certain when the flight would be cleared for takeoff, Atthanayake said.

"The pilot announced that there was a bomb scare aboard a Saudi flight and all flights are delayed," Ruth Bater, a passenger on board a SriLankan Airlines flight to London told the AP.

She said all passengers on the flight were asked to disembark and boarded again an hour later.

In 2003, a bomb scare grounded a Cathay Pacific aircraft for more than six hours at Colombo's international airport, an airport official said. It later proved to be a hoax.

In July 2001, Tamil Tiger rebels destroyed a dozen commercial and military aircraft at the airport in an attack that left 22 people, including 14 rebels, dead.

On Thursday, the guerrillas rejected a suggestion by Norwegian peace-brokers a day earlier to hold crucial talks to review a fraying cease-fire at the airport. The Tigers said the venue is not appropriate.

The Tigers began fighting in 1983 for a homeland for the nation's Tamils, but since signing a Norwegian cease-fire with the government in February 2002, have said they would settle for autonomy.

Associated Press writer Ruwan Weerakoon contributed to this report.

(c) 2005 Associated Press