BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — The Serb pilot who landed a jetliner in Somalia with a gaping hole in its fuselage said Sunday he never doubted that it was caused by a bomb and described the security surround the airplane at Mogadishu Airport as “zero.”
A suicide bomber is suspected to have set off the explosive inside the plane, Somali officials said Saturday. The blast sucked a male passenger out of the plane and forced the aircraft to make an emergency landing Tuesday in Somalia’s capital, they said.
The explosion happened about 15 minutes after the plane, with 75 passengers on board, took off from the airport and was at 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) ascending toward 31,000 feet.
“When we went past 10,000 feet, we switched off the fasten belts sign and the cabin crew started serving passengers,” pilot captain Vlatko Vodopivec told The Associated Press. “When we climbed past 11,000 feet, it exploded. At first, I thought it was a window breaking. However, we soon sensed the smell of the explosives when smoke came rushing into the cockpit.”
“All lasted very shortly,” he said. “We immediately demanded an emergency return to the airport because that was the only solution. With a heavy heart, because there the security is minimal and we had to remain there for a couple of days afterword.”
If the explosion happened at a higher altitude, the hole in the fuselage might have caused more severe structural damage, he said.
“If we were higher, the whole plane could have disintegrated after the explosion,” Vodopivec said.
Because the plane was at a lower altitude, he was able to land safely, he said. “The plane acted normally and we virtually returned normally. Engines and hydraulics worked normally.”
The explosion killed one passenger, Abdullahi Abdisalam Borle, according to Somali officials who did not give further details. A man’s body was found in the town of Balad, 30 kilometers (about 18 miles) north of Mogadishu, according to police who said he might have been blown from the plane.
Borle is suspected to have been the suicide bomber, the AP was told by a senior Somali civil aviation official, who insisted on anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. Six people have been arrested in connection with the blast after examinations of CCTV images in the airport, a senior Somali intelligence official said.
The pilot blamed the incident on the lack of security around the plane at Mogadishu Airport, describing the facility as chaotic.
“The security is zero. When we park there, some 20 to 30 people come to the tarmac,” said Vodopivec, a veteran pilot who has made numerous flights to the airport. “No one has a badge or those yellow vests. They enter and leave the plane, and no one knows who is who … They can put anything inside when passengers leave the aircraft.”
Somalia’s government has said it will tighten security at the airport to prevent other threats.
Somalia faces an insurgency from the Islamic extremist group al-Shabaab, which has carried out deadly attacks in Somalia and neighboring countries.
Daallo Airlines, which is based in Dubai, has temporarily suspended its operations in Somalia’s capital following the incident but hopes to restart them soon, said Mohammed Ibrahim Yassin, the airline’s chief executive.
Vodopivec also highlighted additional security concerns in the Somali capital, including some planes that are struck by gunfire on approach to the airport.
“You can land at the airport only from the seaside,” he said. “On the other side of the runway is the city. Bigger planes don’t land over the city because of security concerns. Some planes landed with bullet holes in their fuselage.”