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UK jets chase silent Pak plane

London, Nov. 20: Two Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter jets intercepted a Pakistan International Airlines Boeing 747 carrying 81 passengers from Karachi to Manchester because its crew repeatedly failed to contact air traffic controllers, it was disclosed yesterday.

The incident, which occurred last Friday, reveals the nervousness of the British security authorities who have drawn up strict rules of engagement to prevent a '9/11'-type incident.

In the ultimate analysis, an airliner even with innocent passengers on board could be shot down if, in the opinion of the authorities, the plane is thought to be deliberately off its flight path and headed towards a possible target.

In this case, the alarm was raised after the PIA flight failed to contact controllers at Maastricht in Holland.

As the aircraft entered British air space, controllers at Swanwich in Hampshire, tipped off by their colleagues in Holland, also tried and failed to get a response from the silent PIA crew.

At this point, Britain's National Air Traffic Services (Nats) called in the security services who immediately scrambled the two RAF jets, which were almost certainly armed with missiles.

A spokesperson for Nats said: 'The plane failed to get in touch with us as required and we followed our standard procedures in alerting the security forces. We reported the incident to the civil aviation authority and its safety regulation group is now looking into it.'

The PIA crew eventually made contact with controllers but the RAF jets flew for about 15 minutes alongside the Boeing 747, accompanying it to within 40 miles of Manchester airport.

Britain has about 1.5 million Muslims, half of them of Pakistani origin. All of them have been made to feel vulnerable because of the hot-headed actions of a handful of young men who have gone to Pakistan and become involved in jihad.

The British government has the extremely difficult job of not stereotyping the whole of the community, which right wing groups such as the National Front and the British National Party are keen to do, but also being aware of the potential for trouble.

This background explains why the Pakistani high commissioner in London, Dr Maleeha Lodhi, gave what can only be called a brave interview, published today in the Yorkshire Post, in advance of a trip to the Bradford area which has the highest concentration of Pakistanis in the UK.

Lodhi ' like Benazir Bhutto, she has herself broken barriers ' said she would refuse to address any male-only audiences. She also said the use of English, and learning the language, should be encouraged at home as early as possible to help improve the relatively poor educational achievement among Pakistani children.

The high commissioner questioned the continuing practice of bringing marriage partners in from the subcontinent, saying it was common sense that young Pakistanis already living in the UK were more likely to be compatible with each other.

Lodhi said attitudes towards the role of women needed to change. They should be treated as equal partners and not hidden away in the family home.

'You can integrate without assimilating, so you are part of British society,' she told the Yorkshire Post. 'You should be good British citizens, you should be part of this society.'

She added: 'You cannot isolate yourself and then expect people to listen to what your grievances are.'

Sadly, some young Britons of Pakistani origin continue to make headlines for the wrong reason.

For example, the Americans are seeking the extradition of Babar Ahmad, 30, of Fountain Road, Tooting, south London, who is accused by the US of raising money to support terrorism in Chechnya and Afghanistan via websites and emails.

At his extradition proceedings, now under at Bow Street magistrates' court, it was alleged that from mid-1997 to early 1998, Ahmad sought to purchase up to 5,000 tons of sulphur phosphate. A search of his parents' home revealed letters showing Ahmad had attempted to buy large amounts of chemicals on behalf of a third party. It was claimed there was also evidence that Ahmad had made a 'miscellaneous' shipment to Pakistan.

James Lewis QC, acting on behalf of the US government, told the court that Ahmad ran a website named after Osama bin Laden's deceased spiritual adviser, www.azzam.com, which aimed to raise funds for terrorism and encouraged terrorist acts.

Supporters of Ahmad, an IT administrator, who filled the court ' they included his father Ashfaq Ahmad, 69, a retired civil servant ' listened as Lewis outlined how during a trip to the US in 1999, Ahmad allegedly purchased 100 cold weather camouflage suits and had them shipped back to himself in the UK. He also returned with a bullet-proof vest.

Edward Fitzgerald QC, defending, told the court there were concerns as to whether Ahmad would receive a fair trial if extradited to the US.

The hearing was adjourned until December 16

Outside the court, Ahmad's father pledged he would fight attempts by the US to extradite his son. 'The Muslim community is worried and strongly believes that the current trend here is that you are guilty until found innocent.'

'Today my son, tomorrow it will be someone else's son,' commented Ahmad Senior. 'We all know that the US is notorious for abuse of human rights and is also responsible for killing thousands of innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan. They cannot be trusted to give my son a fair trial.'

To be fair, there are positive stories, too, about Pakistanis. One is that the Rawalpindi Express, Shoaib Akhtar, a hero to Pakistanis and Indians alike in Britain, will play from July for Worcestershire, which will be captained by England one-day opener Vikram Solanki from next season.

The club's director of cricket, Tom Moody, said: 'Shoaib creates a huge buzz wherever he bowls and I have no doubt Shoaib will be a popular member of the squad both on and off the field.'

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