Suspect in deadly '86 hijacking arraigned in U.S.
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A suspect in the deadly 1986 hijacking of a Pan Am jetliner in Pakistan pleaded not guilty in federal court Tuesday to charges of murdering two U.S. citizens aboard the hijacked plane.
Zayd Hassan Abd Al-Latif Masud Al Safarini, who authorities allege is a member of the Abu Nidal terrorist organization, was arraigned in U.S. District Court just days after the FBI grabbed him in Pakistan and whisked him away to Alaska, then on to Washington.
Safarini, wearing an orange jumpsuit and shackled, did not speak in the 10-minute hearing. His attorney entered his plea on his behalf.
He faces 126 counts related to the hijacking, including the murder charges. He is accused in the killings of Rajesh Kumar and Surendra Patel during the hijacking standoff in Karachi on September 5, 1986.
Safarini could face execution if convicted.
Van Harp, the assistant director of the FBI's Washington field office, said Safarini's trial sends a strong message.
"We are committed to bringing the individuals responsible for terrorism around the world that affects our citizens ... to justice," Harp said.
U.S. Attorney Roscoe Howard said the arrest demonstrated the Justice Department's commitment to "tracking down persons charged with or having committed terrorist acts."
Authorities said FBI agents in Pakistan took Safarini into custody Friday after he was released from prison by Pakistani officials. Safarini had served a 14-year sentence for the hijacking during which 22 passengers were killed and many others were injured.
Safarini was indicted by a Washington grand jury along with five others in 1991.
Officials said there was no connection between the 1986 hijackers and the plot behind the recent suicide hijacking attacks, but stressed it shows the importance the U.S. government is placing on fighting terrorism.
The hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 is described by U.S. officials as one of the most brutal international terrorist attacks in the 1980s.
The incident began as passengers were boarding the aircraft in Karachi for a flight to Frankfurt, Germany, en route to New York. Safarini and three other men disguised as security guards drove what appeared to be a security van directly to the aircraft steps. They fired shots as they ran up the stairs and took control of the plane. For the next 16 hours the hijackers held 379 passengers, including 89 Americans, at gunpoint.
Authorities said the hijackers selected and executed Kumar because he was a U.S. citizen. Hours later the hijackers allegedly herded the passengers into the center of the aircraft. When the lights went out, the hijackers opened fire on the passengers and threw hand grenades into the crowd. Patel and 20 others died.
Safarini and three others were arrested, convicted and sentenced by officials in Pakistan. Safarini served out his term. U.S. officials had no immediate information on the sentences of the accomplices
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