November 17, 2005

Syria questions Gulf Air passengers over weapon

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syria is questioning several
passengers who attempted to board a Gulf Air flight to Bahrain
this week with a dismantled weapon concealed in their luggage,
official and aviation sources said on Thursday.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said earlier
on Thursday four Australian women of Iraqi origin had been
detained in Syria after a dismantled handgun was discovered as
they tried to board the plane in Damascus.

A Syrian official refused to say if the passengers were
suspected of attempting to hijack the airliner, but said:
"There is an investigation involving several passengers."

A source familiar with the case said investigators were
also examining the authenticity of the passengers' passports.
"The passports need to be examined before anything can be said
about nationalities."

An aviation executive in the region said seven Iraqi
passengers, apparently from the same family, had one or more
disassembled weapon in their luggage and were arrested before
boarding the Bahrain-bound aircraft on Tuesday.

"According to the information I received, they were seven
Iraqis from the same family but a few of them had foreign
passports ... Australian I think," the aviation executive, who
spoke on terms of anonymity, told Reuters by telephone.

"It appears to me as a possible hijacking attempt, but I am
not a security official," the executive added. "I am very happy
that the Syrian authorities were vigilant as it appears that
the way the weapons were concealed was very hard to notice."

Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) radio said the
dismantled gun was found in a child's toy and that the women
were traveling to Australia via a stopover in Bahrain
accompanied by a young child.

The sources said the Manama-bound flight was delayed for
about two hours while security personnel inspected the

A Gulf Air official told Reuters that after the delay in
Damascus there was no disruption to ongoing services for the
Bahrain-based regional carrier.

"We maintain the highest levels of security and are
cooperating with on-ground security staff," he added.

Downer said an Australian consular official was traveling
to Damascus from Egypt to offer assistance to the women of
Iraqi origin, whom he said had been detained along with two
Iraqi women.

(Additional reporting by James Grubel and Michelle Nichols
in Australia)