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Removal of men from holiday flight condemned

  • Passengers feared 'Asian' pair were terrorists
  • MP describes incident as hugely irrational

Alex Kumi
Monday August 21 2006
The Guardian

The removal of two men from a holiday flight on the grounds that fellow passengers feared they were terrorists was condemned yesterday. The pair, thought to be in their 20s and of Middle Eastern or Asian appearance, were removed from a flight to Manchester from Malaga, Spain, after passengers became suspicious of their behaviour.

In the early hours of Wednesday a number of passengers on Monarch Airlines flight ZB613 left the plane, refusing to fly unless the two men were removed, causing a three-hour delay.

Passengers are reported to have become suspicious after the men were overheard apparently speaking Arabic and seen repeatedly checking their watches, although this has not been confirmed by the airline.

Muslim MP Khalid Mahmood described the incident as "hugely irrational". "People need to get their senses back into order. You can't just accuse anybody who's of Asian appearance and treat them like a terrorist," said the Labour MP for Birmingham.

"If somebody is threatening anybody it's understandable, but when they are just travelling for their own needs it's not. People just need to calm down."

These sentiments were echoed by Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, of the Muslim Parliament of Britain, who described the incident as "sad and shocking".

"We have got to find a better way where somebody's look is not the basis for this kind of action - it has to be more intelligence-led," he said.

And, warning that the incident was an example of what the Metropolitan police chief superintendent Ali Dizaei called a new offence of "travelling while Asian", he said: "The greatest danger is that the extremists have succeeded in convincing Muslims and Arabs that the war on terror isn't a war on terror but a war on Islam and Muslims."

The Islamic Human Rights Commission said "ever-increasing Islamophobia" related to the "war on terror" was to blame for the removal of the men, who were questioned by police and forced to fly back to Manchester later in the week.

A Monarch Airlines spokesman said the men attracted attention because "they were apparently acting suspiciously", although he would not say what they had done. "The flight attendants were sufficiently concerned to alert the crew, who in turn informed the security authorities at Malaga airport," he said.

It is the latest in a number of scares since an alleged plot to bomb transatlantic flights was foiled. Last week a flight from London to Washington was diverted to Boston because a female passenger was carrying a screwdriver, matches and hand cream, which are banned. On Thursday morning, US authorities evacuated an airport in West Virginia after explosive residue was found on two containers in a passenger's hand luggage. Initial reports that the liquid inside the bottles had tested positive were later withdrawn.

Meanwhile, the transport secretary, Douglas Alexander, has revealed that airport security restrictions are to be made more "manageable" within days. He plans to meet representatives of airports operator BAA to resolve outstanding issues.

Holidaymakers could face further disruption over the bank holiday weekend if present measures remain in place. Almost two million people are expected to travel at what is usually one of the busiest times of the year.

There was a slow return to normal services last week, after the government reduced the threat level from "critical" to "severe". Although restrictions on hand luggage were relaxed, airport staff are still required to search half of all passengers.

People travelling through Stansted airport over the bank holiday weekend may find their plans disrupted by a two-day strike rather than security checks.

About 500 baggage and check-in staff employed by airport services group Swissport have voted to take industrial action over a pay dispute. There were talks with the reconciliation service Acas yesterday to try to avert action. The GMB union predicts that Stansted flights are likely to be "severely disrupted" if the strike goes ahead.




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