04/20/2009

Jamaican police capture gunman holding Canadian jet hostage

By Howard Campbell
Associated Press

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KINGSTON, Jamaica — A gunman forced his way though airport security onto a Canadian jet near Montego Bay, holding six crew members hostage for eight hours before police and soldiers stormed the aircraft on Monday and captured him.

Nobody was killed or injured in the ordeal, which ended with a raid after talks broke down with a 20-year-old Jamaican gunman described as "mentally challenged."

"We were getting nowhere with the negotiations," Jamaican Information Minister Daryl Vaz told The Associated Press. "Police and military went on the plane and captured him."

The suspect identified as Stephen Fray was in custody. Vaz said he is a "mentally challenged" 20-year-old man from the northwestern resort city of Montego Bay. He did not detail the man's mental condition but said he was apparently upset over a failed relationship.

The hostage crisis that began around 10:20 p.m. Sunday and ended near 6:40 a.m., when members of the Jamaica Defence Force Counter Terrorism Operations Group stormed the aircraft's cabin, according to a police statement.

The young man boarded CanJet Airlines Flight 918 in Montego Bay and demanded to be flown to Cuba, Vaz told The Associated Press. The plane had arrived from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and was scheduled to stop in Santa Clara, Cuba, before returning to Canada.

A total of 159 passengers and eight crew members were aboard the Boeing 737 at the time, according to Jamaican police. Police said all the passengers and two crew members were released after a short time.

The hostage talks failed despite the involvement of the Fray's father and two brothers, who helped to get him talking before negotiators reached a dead end, Vaz said.

At least one passenger said the hijacker fired a warning shot after boarding the plane.

Alphonse Gosselin, whose 30-year-old son Christian was on the plane, said his son told him that the hijacker pointed a gun at him and other passengers. Christian and his girlfriend were among a group of 22 family members traveling to Cuba for a wedding.

"The first thing that he said to his girlfriend was, 'Be calm. Don't say a word.' He said take your passport and your credit card and put it in your back pocket. He said we'll give him the money," Gosselin said in an interview from Tracadie Sheila, New Brunswick.

All the passengers were Canadian, Woodside said.

Passenger Brenda Grenier told the Canadian television channel CTV Newsnet that the gunman became agitated when a security guard came aboard and approached him, Grenier said. She said he ordered the pilot off the plane and shot his gun.

"That's when we all got very, very scared and people were crying and praying and we were just really frightened for all of our lives. There were children on the plane."

Grenier said a flight attendant had the idea to try to buy their freedom from the hijacker.

"We all took our money and we just, like, left our purses and our passports and everything just in the plane because we didn't want to take any chances. We just put the money in a bag and we ran out of the plane."

Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding addressed all the passengers after they were debriefed by police, according to the police statement.

The passengers were taken to a hotel, Vaz said. CanJet planned to fly another aircraft to Montego Bay to return the passengers to Canada, Woodside said.

"It's a most unfortunate situation, but I can say the passengers are happy to be alive," Vaz said. "This whole experience has been very traumatic for them."

CanJet Airlines said 174 passengers were expected on the flight, but some apparently were not aboard by the time of the hijacking.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was in Jamaica for a one-day visit, called Golding and "congratulated him for the successful resolution," Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas said.

The charter airline is owned by Halifax-based IMP Group Ltd., according to CanJet's Web site.

Jamaican National Security Minister Dwight Nelson said the airport is expected to reopen Monday morning.

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