STANSTED, England -- Hijackers released eight hostages today from an Afghan passenger airliner that was forced across Central Asia and Europe before landing in Stansted Airport outside London.
The hostages were released in two groups, several hours apart. The eight released were three men, three women and two children, police said. It was not immediately clear if all of them were passengers or if some were members of the crew. No reason was given for the releases.
''We are at a very critical stage in our negotiations,'' John Broughton, assistant chief constable of the Essex Police, said immediately after the first group was released. Some 157 hostages and an unknown number of hijackers remained aboard.
The hijackers had released a total of 22 hostages in return for supplies during earlier stops in Uzbekistan, Kazakstan and Russia before arriving at Stansted early today.
Broughton said the only requests the hijackers made in Stansted were for food, water, some basic sanitary equipment and unspecified medical supplies. He said police were talking to the released hostages to get more information.
A diplomat familiar with the negotiations in Moscow said the hijackers sought to free a prisoner held in the Afghan city of Kandahar.
Afghan media speculated the hijackers were dissidents who wanted the release of Ismail Khan, a former regional governor who has been held since 1997 by Afghanistan's ruling Taliban movement. Khan is a member of Afghanistan's opposition alliance, which still rules roughly 10 percent of the war shattered country.
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