Embracing the Taliban's Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, they gave thanks for their safe return and an end to the ordeal that began Feb. 6 in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and ended in Britain.
"This is my home. I love it very much," said Juma Khan, who stepped off the aircraft and kissed the ground.
At the airport in southern Kandahar, Muttawakil greeted the 73 returning passengers with an embrace and a new shalwar kameez, the traditional Afghan dress. He gave turbans to some of the men but in keeping with the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islam there was no contact with women disembarking from the aircraft.
On board Monday were 60 adults and 13 children, including the 10 crew members of the Ariana Airlines plane hijacked on a flight to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Mohammed Ibrahim, one of the returning passengers, said the ordeal was a horrific one as the aircraft made a series of stops before landing in Britain on Feb. 7.
He said some of the hostages were beaten. "They were with their families. They only wanted to go to Britain, to leave Afghanistan."
Despite assurances from Muttawakil that the passengers were welcome to return and would face no punishment, 74 passengers remain in Britain and have sought asylum.
Muttawakil urged Britain to reject the requests, saying granting them asylum would encourage hijacking. He said the asylum seekers are not political refugees but economic ones, trying to leave a country ravaged by 20 years of war.
Thirteen men, including two sets of brothers, appeared in court Monday in Britain and were charged with seizing an aircraft and its passengers.
The Taliban want the hijackers prosecuted and punished, but officials have not demanded their return to Afghanistan. Taliban Aviation Minister Akhtar Mohammed Manzoor said they would be sentenced to seven years in jail if convicted of hijacking at home.
The Taliban want Britain to return the hijacked jet, one of only four passenger planes in the state-run airline's fleet. Manzoor said the Taliban have sent $40,000 to Britain to finance repairs to the plane and said British authorities are asking for $10,000 more for an airport tax.
It's unclear if Britain will return the plane to Afghanistan, which is under U.N. sanctions imposed last November. The sanctions, including a ban on all international flights by the airline, were imposed after the Taliban refused to hand over suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden to the United States or a third country for trial.
By Amir Shah
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