Hijack Motive Remains A Puzzle
HAKODATE, Japan (AP) _ Police were questioning an out-of-work bank employee today to try to find out why he commandeered a jumbo jet and terrorized its passengers for 16 hours before police overpowered him.
The 364 passengers and crew who had been on the All Nippon Airways flight, meanwhile, celebrated a safe end to an ordeal that began Wednesday on what should have been a short hop from Tokyo to the northern city of Hakodate.
``We were all so nervous,″ said 92-year-old Kunitake Watanabe, who worried about his heart condition during the long standoff that ended at dawn today when riot police stormed the aircraft. ``But I somehow knew we would be rescued.″
One 24-year-old passenger had a minor stab wound in her left shoulder and six other passengers were treated for stress-related ailments such as asthma or shock.
The hijacker, 53-year-old Fumio Kutsumi, was bloodied by police when they stormed onto the jet at the Hakodate airport and seized him after he had threatened to blow up the plane. He was brandishing a sharpened screwdriver, but no explosives were found.
Kutsumi has been on a medical leave from his job since 1994, and the bank says his ailments include a ``nervous disorder″ and asthma. The bank president, in true Japanese form, apologized for any trouble Kutsumi had caused.
The airline said its crew told them during the takeover that the hijacker was an apparent member of the Aum Shinri Kyo cult, accused in the Tokyo subway attack, and that he had demanded the release of jailed cult leader Shoko Asahara.
But police said Thursday they had turned up no evidence of an Aum connection. The cult denied any involvement in the hijacking.
Police said they were still investigating what was inside a vinyl bag Kutsumi had tried to puncture _ a move that had raised fears he was trying to release nerve gas. In the March 20 subway attack, cult assailants punctured plastic bags full of the liquid form of the nerve agent sarin.
Once the hijacker began negotiating with police, he made no reference to Asahara, but repeated a demand that the plane be refueled and flown back to Tokyo. He provided no clue as to his motive.
``I did what I wanted to do,″ a police spokesman quoted him as saying. All Kutsumi has told police is his name and address, they said.
Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, whose government was roundly criticized for a slow response to earlier crises including the Kobe earthquake in January, basked in the welcome news that the standoff ended without deaths or serious injuries.
``We were trying to protect the safety of the passengers above all else while also trying to arrest the criminal,″ Murayama told reporters today. ``Preparations went perfectly.″
The decision to storm the plane came after passengers speaking furtively from cellular phones were able to give officials a good picture of what was happening inside: that the hijacker had no accomplices, and that he was alone in the front section of the plane.
Eleven foreigners were aboard, including three Finns, two Americans, two Indonesians, an Australian, a Canadian, and a Dane. The nationality of the other was not immediately available.
``I finally made it. I hope to have a good time,″ said David Silverman, 24, of Toronto, who was arriving in Hakodate for a two-month stay with a local family to study Japanese.
During the hijack drama, viewers throughout Japan tuned in for round-the-clock TV coverage. In a country long unaccustomed to violent crime, the subway attack and its aftermath have been deeply disturbing.
``A sense of anxiety, a gloom associated with Aum, hangs over our society,″ the national Asahi newspaper editorialized today. ``The reputation that Japan is a safe society must not be tainted further.″
Many Japanese reacted with relief to the end of the crisis, but said it didn’t end their worries.
``I’m glad that nothing happened to the passengers,″ said office worker Asuka Yoshii, 25, during her lunch hour in downtown Tokyo. ``But I still don’t feel it’s safe. There have been too many surprising happenings, and I am afraid what will be the next.″
Critics were asking how _ with stepped-up security at airports, train stations and other public venues _ someone could have gotten a weapon onto one of the 700 domestic flights criss-crossing Japan each day.
Airport officials said even with careful checks, it would be relatively easy to conceal something the size and shape of the sharpened screwdriver the hijacker used to menace a flight attendant and commandeer the plane.
The airport in Hakodate, a seaside city 425 miles (680 km) north of Tokyo, reopened after having been sealed off during the standoff.