Saturday, September 12, 2009

Preacher used juice cans to hijack Mexican jet

MEXICO CITY (AFP) - – A Bolivian preacher who hijacked a Mexican plane saying he was on a divine mission used three juice cans to convince crew members he had a bomb, he later told reporters.

Jose Marc Flores Pereira, 44, a Bible-carrying evangelical preacher, singer and former drug addict, surrendered to authorities here Wednesday after hijacking the Aeromexico Boeing 737 on a flight from the tourist resort of Cancun to Mexico City.

All 104 people on board -- most of whom had no idea they had been taken hostage -- were safely evacuated as security forces swarmed Mexico's international airport within minutes of the plane landing.

The airline said it was originally alerted to the situation after it "received a bomb threat while in flight," according to a statement.

"It wasn't a bomb," a smiling Flores Pereira told reporters after his arrest. "It was three Jumex (juice) cans that I filled with sand and put some little colored lights on."

Initial media reports that the hijacking involved multiple hijackers carrying explosives were later denied by Transport Secretary Juan Francisco Molinar Horcasitas, who said no explosives were found on the plane, only a fake bomb.

While Flores Pereira acted alone, Mexican officials said they originally detained five other people because the hijacker had told a flight attendant he was acting with accomplices, referring to himself and "God and the Holy Spirit."

Flores Pereira told authorities he acted to protect the country after having "a revelation that Mexico was facing a great danger, and was threatened by an earthquake," public security official Genaro Garcia Luna told reporters.

The priest, brought out for questioning by the media, told reporters his actions were linked to Wednesday's date -- September 9, 2009 -- because the numbers 9/9/9 were the opposite of 6/6/6 the numbers associated with the AntiChrist.

Flores Pereira had demanded to fly over the airport "seven times" and to speak with President Felipe Calderon, Garcia Luna said. Calderon canceled his afternoon meetings to head to the sprawling airport.

The alleged hijacker was also said to be a former prisoner and drug addict from Bolivia, who has lived in Mexico for 17 years.

His wife, Elsa Vergara, apologized to Calderon in comments reported by the local media in the southern city of Oaxaca near where her husband's church is located. She was quoted as saying that her husband suffered from "psychological problems."

In Bolivia, his mother Maria Pereira de Flores told local media he wanted to hijack a plane to speak to the Mexican president to urge him to preach the gospel from Mexico City's central square.

"If God sent him to do that, I bless him in the name of the Lord," she was quoted as saying.

Pilot Carlos Corzo said when the plane had landed "the first thing he did was show me some Bible verses; I tried really hard to gain his confidence.

"I told him that I am a believer, and that it is good to share the message, but that this was not the way to do it," Corzo told the daily Reforma online.

Thirty foreigners were among the passengers, according to diplomatic sources: 18 Americans, five Canadians, three French, three Bolivians, two Spaniards and a German.

"We only learned about it when we landed and we were informed by the crew over the radio that we had been hijacked," said passenger Rodrigo Padilla. "Everything was very quiet, there were no guns, no shots were fired."

In less than an hour, the drama had been brought to an end.

Television images showed chaotic scenes as the passengers, most dressed in shorts and T-shirts, descended from the plane, some carrying young children and clutching bags.

They were briefly made to sit on the tarmac by security forces, before being led away. The last to leave the plane was the captain, who had negotiated the release of the passengers with a woman air controller.

It was the first time the airline had suffered a hijacking since 1972, when leftist guerrillas seized one of its planes demanding the release of some of their fellow rebels.

The last hijacking in the region was in April in Jamaica, when an armed man took over a CanJet Boeing 737 due to fly from Montego Bay to Cuba. All 182 people on board were rescued unharmed when Jamaican police stormed the plane.

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