KUWAIT -- Five gunmen who hijacked a Kuwaiti airliner to Tehran threatened Wednesday to blow up the plane with all 95 people aboard unless Kuwait freed 21 people imprisoned for bombing U.S. and French facilities.
Kuwait refused the demand, but the Kuwaiti interior minister later contacted the hijackers by radio in a bid to win the release of the 90 hostages aboard the plane, Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency said.
Iranian officials also said food was delivered to the hostages stranded on the Kuwait Airways plane, surrounded by Iranian troops since Tuesday at Tehran's Mehrabad airport. The hijackers had refused a food delivery for more than 24 hours.
Sheikh Nawaf al Ahmad al Jaber, Kuwait's interior minister, spoke with the hijackers at their request. He spoke to them from Kuwait, about 500 miles south of the Iranian capital, Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
'The content of the talks was not immediately known,' IRNA said, but they raised hopes for a peaceful end to the crisis after one person, said to be a U.S. diplomat, was reported killed on the plane. U.S. officials in Washington said they had no confirmation the dead passenger was an American.
The hijackers, who seized the plane early Tuesday on a flight from Kuwait to Pakistan, earlier allowed a doctor to board the jetliner after saying it was ready to take off for an undisclosed destination. IRNA said security forces had blocked off the runway.
State Department officials said three Americans employed by the Agency for International Development were among the hostages 36 hours after five heavily armed hijackers seized the French-built Airbus carrying 166 people on a flight from Kuwait to Karachi, Pakistan.
'We're concerned about everybody on that plane, but obviously we're particularly concerned about American citizens,' State Department spokesman John Hughes said in Washington.
IRNA said Iranian authorities 'persuaded the sky pirates to allow a doctor to enter the plane and treat one of the Kuwaiti passengers suffering from a heart ailment.'
'Two other Kuwaiti passengers were earlier struck by heart attacks,' IRNA said, but the hijackers agreed to release them only if they were replaced by Kazem Maarefi, Kuwait's charge d'affaires in the Iranian capital, where the hijacked Kuwait Airways plane was forced to land about dawn Tuesday morning. The hijackers Wednesday freed 24 hostages, including a security guard wounded during the takeover, raising to 70 the number of passengers released since the Kuwaiti Airways jet landed at Tehran's snow-covered Mehrabad Airport.
Hours later, the hijackers announced their plane was ready to leave for an undisclosed destination but the runway was blocked.
'They stepped out of the plane and checked the plane's lights and wheels and the sound of its starter was also heard,' IRNA said. 'However, security forces have closed the runway with vehicles and other obstacles.'
IRNA said the hijackers said they had 'planted explosives in the plane' and threatened to blow it up if their demands were not met.
They demanded Kuwait release 21 people who were imprisoned for a wave of bombings against French and U.S. facilities in Kuwait last December, Kuwaiti officials said. The bombings were attributed to Shiite Moslem supporters of Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
'The Kuwaiti government announced ... it will not accept any conditions before the release of all the hijacked passengers,' IRNA reported. 'It said, however, that the hijackers can trust in principle the good will of the Kuwaiti government.'
IRNA said ambulances, firemen and other rescue teams were on alert around the jetliner, which was also surrounded by troops on a snow-covered side runway at the airport.
The Arabic-speaking hijackers forced the airliner with 150 other passengers and 11 crew aboard to Tehran early Tuesday, shortly after a scheduled stopover at Dubai, the United Emirates, on a flight from Kuwait to Karachi, Pakistan.
Shortly after its arrival in Tehran, the hijackers shot a man aboard the aircraft, dumping him onto the tarmac. The official Iranian News Agency IRNA said the man died of his wounds on the way to a Tehran hospital.
'The hijackers in their negotiations have identified the dead passenger, which previously was said to be a British national, as an American diplomat,' IRNA said but gave no further details.
A diplomatic source said the description of the victim's body did not appear to match that of any of the three AID employees, who sources said were based in Karachi.
After they were freed, three passengers told IRNA the hijackers were led by a man called Abu Hassan, who 'seemed nervous' at the start of the hijack but later 'became calm and treated those on board politely.' The passengers thought the men were Lebanese.
Kuwait Airways Flight 221 was the sixth airline hijacking involving Iran since July, and the ninth in the Gulf since then.