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WHITEHORSE (CP) - U.S. military aircraft escorted a Korean passenger plane and forced it to land at the airport here Tuesday after apparently misplaced concerns it might have been hijacked.
An emergency transponder signal was triggered, but Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles said it appeared it was intended to signal low fuel, not a terrorist hijacking. Cpl. Al Lucier, of RCMP in Whitehorse, said Canadian planes also took part in the escort of the Boeing 747, believed to have been carrying more than 200 people.
"(The flight) was escorted in such a fashion because there was communications on the plane that would suggest that it could possibly be a hijacked aircraft," said Lucier.
The U.S. Air Force's Alaska Command scrambled two fighter jets to intercept the airliner 257 kilometres from Anchorage when the possibility of a skyjacking emerged.
"We subsequently learned that was not the case," Bob King, an aide to Knowles, said in a telephone interview from Juneau.
"The transponder signal was meant to indicate concerns with fuel condition."
About 10 aircraft were expected to be diverted to the Whitehorse airport Tuesday, part of efforts to clear the skies over the United States as that country struggled to grapple with several hijackings and terrorist attacks.
Lucier said schools in the area were evacuated, as well as government facilities.
"What we were considering was the possibility of that aircraft coming down somewhere other than the airport," Lucier said.
"The airplane has successfully landed here and has been taken to an area on the tarmac where we can now deal with the situation at hand."
A Korean cargo plane landed at the airport just before the 747, but that one didn't prompt concern from officials, Lucier said.
It too was believed to be low on fuel.
The 747 was moved to a remote part of the airport tarmac.
Heavily armed RCMP emergency-response officers covered the planes.
A man living near the airport said he witnessed a crew member from the Korean passenger jet descend to the tarmac with his hands in the air.
"He had everyone drawing down on him and he had to take some clothes off, wave his shirt in the air and all that," the unidentified witness told Whitehorse radio station CKRW.
Crew from the cargo jet that had landed earlier were also ordered to leave the plane one by one.
Military bases just across the border in Alaska were placed on high alert.
Anchorage police briefly ordered downtown Anchorage evacuated shortly after 10:30 a.m. after flight officials lost contact with the Korean Air Lines flight.
"We evacuated the state office building in Anchorage and the state court building," said King.
"We informed the municipality and others. British Petroleum also sent all its employees home strictly as a precaution."
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