By Sayed Salahuddin

Kandahar, Afghanistan - Seventy-three Afghans hijacked to London in an apparent bid by dozens more to win political asylum were feted with paper flowers and new clothes when they flew home on Monday.

Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil hugged passengers when they descended the steps from an aircraft chartered by Britain to get them back to the country where their ordeal started eight days ago.

Still weary from four days on the tarmac of London's Stansted airport and complaining of grim weather and poor food, the 60 men and women and 13 minors were welcomed by Muttawakil and other officials before being flown to the capital, Kabul.

Taliban officials said after talking to the passengers that it was clear that the hijacking of the flight from Kabul to the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif was an asylum attempt and called on Britain to punish the hijackers severely.

"That will help deter more hijacks. If the British government take a soft approach, we may have more people resorting to hijackings," said Aviation Minister Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor.

Seven-year penalty

He denied reports that the hijackers would have faced a death sentence if they had come back to Afghanistan, where the Taliban practice an extreme version of Islamic law.

"They would have faced sentences of seven years jail if found guilty," he said.

As he spoke, 13 of the 150-odd people on the flight were due to appear in a London court to be charged with hijacking while the British government pondered asylum applications from 69 hostages amid a row over its policy on accepting exiles.

The passengers who returned said they had no desire to stay in Britain because it is an "infidel country".

"It is not a Muslim country, how could we stay? And the weather was depressing and the food was awful," said one passenger.

The asylum requests triggered a row in Britain, with critics saying that by granting asylum Britain could be seen as an easy destination for would-be asylum seekers and encourage others to take drastic action, possibly imitating the hijack odyssey of the Ariana airlines Boeing 727.

Muttawakil, whose government has accused anti-Taleban guerrilla fighters of being behind the hijacking, said those seeking asylum were merely trying to benefit from Britain's booming economy and had no political axe to grind.

Economic asylum

"Those who stayed in England should not miss their opportunity. They are economic asylum seekers, not political refugees," Muttawakil said.

The International Organisation for Migration, a refugee agency, said the passengers included 10 of the 14 crew and that the four pilots had remained in London to fly the aircraft home.

The hijacked passengers said they returned because of the lure of home. "Afghanistan is my homeland, I could not think to leave it," said one passenger, Mohammad Gulbahari.

The aviation minister said the Taliban, who control most of one of the poorest countries on earth, had been asked for $40 000 (R240 000) by British authorities to repair the hijacked Ariana airlines plane and $10 000 for landing rights and other fees.

Passengers said they had no idea as to the identity of the hijackers. But several said that the motive for the hijacking, which took the plane from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia and then Stansted airport, was to seek asylum.

The Ariana airliner was grounded at Stansted until the hijackers, asylum seekers and passengers surrendered to British authorities without a shot being fired.

British police said the hijackers were armed with pistols, grenades and knives and Taliban officials believe the weapons were smuggled onto the aircraft under the all-enveloping Burqa veil which the Taliban have made mandatory for Afghan women. - Reuters