BEIJING – Passengers and crew foiled a hijacking attempt by six people on a plane in China's far-western Xinjiang region Friday, a regional airline and state media said. An overseas rights group, however, denied a hijacking attempt took place and said a seat dispute triggered an in-air brawl.
The Tianshan regional government's news portal said the alleged hijacking attempt was made just after the plane took off from Hotan in southern Xinjiang for the regional capital of Urumqi and the six suspects were detained after the plane returned safely.
Tianjin Airlines said on its website that the plane returned to Hotan 22 minutes after takeoff. Tianshan did not give further details, such as how many passengers were on the plane or what was known about the suspects.
Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the German-based World Uyghur Congress, said local sources in Hotan told him that the plane turned back after Uighurs and Hans began fighting after a disagreement over seat assignments.
Hans are China's ethnic majority, while a large population of ethnic Uighurs (pronounced WEE'-gurs) lives in Xinjiang. Hotan has been the scene of recent clashes between authorities and Uighurs resentful of government controls on their religion and culture.
The government says China faces an organized terrorist threat from radical Muslim groups in the region and that it has invested heavily to raise living standards in Xinjiang. The investment into developing the region has led to an influx of Han, which has been one source of the tensions there.
The phone listed for Hotan police rang unanswered Friday. A man who identified himself as a police officer and gave only his family name Wang at Xinjiang Department of Public Security said no more information was available.
In 2008, state media reported that a Uighur woman made an unsuccessful attempt to hijack a passenger plane flying to Beijing from Urumqi.
In general, threats to civil aviation in China are believed to be rare.