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Passenger describes scene aboard diverted plane

WASHINGTON—A Northwest Airlines plane flying from Amsterdam to India was escorted back to the airport by Dutch F-16 fighter jets Wednesday, and police arrested 12 passengers whose behavior had aroused the crew's suspicion.

Coincidentally, among the 149 passengers aboard Northwest Flight NO0042 was the tipster who first alerted the FBI to al-Qaida operative Zacarias Moussaoui's odd behavior at a Minneapolis-area flight school five years ago.

Tim Nelson, who was seated in the forward business-class section, said by phone from Amsterdam that he watched the plane dump fuel as it circled back toward the airport, while several federal air marshals appeared in the front of the cabin, hanging their badges around their necks to keep order.

"It was tense," Nelson said, but he said the marshals never flashed weapons. He praised the marshals and flight crew for doing "an outstanding job."

Nelson said it remained unclear whether the flight crew was responding to a serious terrorist incident or "it was just a misunderstanding, where you had unsophisticated people flying."

U.S. government officials, who requested anonymity, said crew members and air marshals observed the passengers in the rear of the wide-bodied DC-10 trying to use cell phones and passing them around during and shortly after takeoff from Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Cell phone use is barred on both U.S. and international flights. Some of the passengers also were trying to change seats, they said.

The Dutch Defense Ministry said that while the plane was over German airspace just after takeoff, the pilot radioed for permission to return to Schiphol and asked for an escort of jet fighters, the Associated Press reported. It said two F-16s scrambled from a northern military airfield, and routine security measures were swiftly put in place.

Nelson and a fellow flight-school program manager have been hailed as heroes for their phone calls that led to Moussaoui's Aug. 16, 2001, arrest and brought the FBI tantalizingly close to uncovering the Sept. 11 terror plot.

Moussaoui pleaded guilty to six conspiracy counts in 2005 and, after a jury narrowly spared him the death penalty last spring, is serving a life sentence without the possibility of release from a "supermax" prison in Colorado.

Dutch police spokesman Rob Staenacker told the AP that he couldn't disclose the nationalities of those arrested Wednesday or the nature of the suspicions against them. Nelson said he watched Dutch police come aboard in threes and escort a dozen men, 10 of them appearing to be of Pakistani or Middle Eastern descent, from the plane one by one in a remote parking area at the airport.

"Some they handcuffed before they took them out," he said. "One guy was a white guy, with a tie-dyed shirt, a beard and dreadlocks. He looked like a hippie. There was an older man who appeared to be of Indian descent."

A few of the others had beards, and some were dressed in shalwar kameez—traditional long shirts and baggy pants, Nelson said.

The incident was the latest of several terror alerts and flight diversions in the two weeks since British police shut down an alleged Islamic plot to smuggle liquid explosives aboard aircraft and detonate them, possibly with cell phones.

Nelson said he was with a flight crew for a Northwest subsidiary, Classic Aviation, en route to Bombay, India, to ferry a plane with a mechanical problem back to an Amsterdam repair facility.

About 15 minutes into the flight, he said, members of the cabin crew hurried past him and stood in the front of the cabin, pointing to the rear.

Nelson said the lead flight attendant then made an announcement over the plane's broadcast system advising everyone to remain in his or her seats.

"They needed to get a head count. People were moving around in the back, and they needed to get back in their proper seats," Nelson said.

Then the flight attendant made a second announcement, saying that something was going on and that air marshals were aboard.

Nelson said several marshals stood near him at the front of the cabin, but he couldn't see what was going on behind him. Nelson said he and his fellow crewmembers advised flight attendants that they were available to help if needed, but that was unnecessary because everyone remained calm.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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