Tripoli, Libya Hijackers in Sudan's wartorn Darfur region seized a jetliner carrying nearly 100 people, including local Darfur officials, and forced it to land at a World War II-era airfield in the heart of the Sahara Desert in neighboring Libya, officials said.
A Libyan official at the remote Kufra airport said there were 10 hijackers belonging to a Darfur rebel group and were demanding enough fuel for the Boeing 737 to continue to France.
But the rebel group quickly denied any link to the hijacking.
The flight was commandeered soon after taking off from Nyala, capital of southern Darfur, en route to Khartoum, the national capital, said Yusuf Ibrahim, director of Khartoum's airport.
The plane was diverted to Kufra, a desert oasis in southeast Libya close to the Sudanese and Egyptian borders, some 1,000 miles from Tripoli.
The Kufra airport official said the hijackers belonged to the Darfur rebel Sudan Liberation Movement led by Abdul-Wahid Nour. They rejected Libyan requests that they release women and children on the flight and allow provisions onto the plane, refusing any negotiations and demanding the refueling, the official said.
The official, who was privy to communications between the plane and airport officials, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
SLM-Nour spokesman Yahia Bolad denied any involvement, saying his group has "no relation to this act."
"This is a fabrication by the Sudanese government and some criminals," said Bolad, from London. "We denounce and condemn this act. We want the protection of civilians wherever they are. This is a dirty conspiracy to defame" the rebels.
In the early hours today, the plane had not refueled and it was not known whether the Libyans would allow it to do so. The airfield has little communications equipment, and it was unclear how extensive the contacts were between the plane and the officials. Some Libyan troops are located at the facility, but their numbers were not known, and no additional forces or higher-ranking officials had arrived hours after the plane landed.
The hijacked airliner belongs to a private company, Sun Air, and was carrying 95 people, including crew and passengers, the Sudanese civil aviation authority said in a statement carried by the Sudan Media Center, which has close links to the government.
Among the passengers were former rebels who have become members of the Darfur Transitional Authority, an interim government body responsible for implementing a peace agreement reached in 2006 between the government and one of the rebel factions, a security official at Nyala airport said. He spoke on the same condition of anonymity.
A spokesman from another rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement, Ahmed Hussain, accused the government in the hijacking, saying it was trying to "divert attention" from an attack by the Sudanese military on the Darfur refugee camp of Kalma, near Nyala airport.
The attack Monday was the worst in Darfur in months. A spokesman for U.N.-African Union peacekeepers, Nourredine Mezni, said at least 33 people were buried Tuesday, though some U.N. officials said the toll could be higher. Hussain said he had reports of 70 dead.
Darfur's ethnic African rebels have been battling the Arab-led Khartoum government since 2003 in a conflict that has killed up to 300,000 people and driven 2.5 million from their homes. The SLM is one of the main rebel groups, but has splintered into numerous factions.