Air crew and passengers foiled an attempted hijacking of a plane Friday noon in China's far west Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, local police said.
Six people tried to hijack Tianjin Airlines' Flight GS 7554 just 10 minutes after it took off from Hotan Airport at 12:25 am, en route to the provincial capital Urumqi, according to the region's Public Security Bureau.
"All six of the hijackers were ethnically Uyghur, and they tried to break into the cockpit using a broken crutch as a weapon, but were overpowered by passengers and crew," Hou Hanmin, chief of the regional information office, told the Global Times, adding that investigation is ongoing and whether the hijackers are part of a terrorist group remains unclear.
Hou said that at least seven people were injured during the fight with the hijackers and the six suspects are now in police custody.
The hijack was a violent terrorist attack, Hou said, adding that four passengers are receiving hospital treatment and their conditions are stable.
The plane returned to Hotan after the suspects were foiled. Hou said order in the airport has been restored since the crisis was resolved.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China has decided to honor the crew of the flight as "China's Civil Aviation Anti-hijacking Hero Crew," and also expressed appreciation to the passengers who bravely aided the crew.
A Web user under the screen name cameral claimed on Tencent Weibo that a friend of his on the plane helped to fight the hijackers, three of whom were sitting in the front and the other three in the middle of the vessel.
More mundane concerns haunted the passengers later. Another Sina Weibo user claimed that they were still stuck at Hotan airport at around 7 pm, where they had only received a bowl of instant noodles for dinner.
The BBC quoted Hou as saying that there were 92 passengers and 9 crew members on board during the hijack.
"All of a sudden, policemen and armed police at Hotan airport cleared the taxis and cars out. Soon I saw riot police cars, ambulances and fire engines entering the airport," a driver surnamed Wu told the Global Times.
Wu and other Uyghur drivers awaiting passengers at the airport were angry about the hijacking since their hopes of rich profits during the tourism season may be spoiled by the plot.
Li Wei, director of the Institute of Security and Strategic Studies at the Beijing-based China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told the Global Times that, judging by the nature of the hijack, it was a terrorist attack.
"The hijackers adopted violent measures to threaten the lives of civilians and their intentions are also suspicious since we're coming up to July 5, the third anniversary of the riots in Xinjiang," Li said. "The successful frustration of this terrorist plot proves that airport security is very important and that it's also vital for the crew members and passengers to act quickly."
Authorities have reportedly started house-to-house inspections in Hotan city after an illegal madrassa holding 54 children was raided earlier in June.
"Separatists in Xinjiang are trying to make some noise before the opening of the 18th National Congress of Communist Party of China on the meeting of WUC in Tokyo. It shows that the hijack and other serious terrorist attacks in southern Xinjiang are motivated by exile groups overseas and the connection is close and underground," Li said.
At least 12 people were killed during terrorist attacks at the end of February, Xinhua reported.
Xinjiang officials participating in China's annual parliamentary session in March stressed their determination to fight terrorism.