An American rescue plane arrived in the frozen far northern Soviet city of Murmansk late last night to bring out the 109 surviving passengers and crew of a outh Korean airliner that crash landed in Russia Friday after being fired on by Soviet fighter jets.
The rescue plane, a Pan American Boeing 727, was expected here early this morning after hours of intricate diplomatic maneuvering and air navigation made necessary by the secrecy with which the Soviet Union surrounds its far northwest region.
The flight left, West Berlin three hours late yesterday after a wrangle with Soviet officials fearful that the plane might intrude on the military security that shrouds the sparsely populated area.
From West Berlin, the Pan American plane, with a crew of eight and a doctor and nurse, flew to Leningrad where it refueled and picked up U.S. and Japanese diplomats and a Soviet navigator and interpreter.
What was to have been a one-hour stop in Murmansk grew to three hours by early today. An airport official in Murmansk, reached by Reuter, said there were delays in transferring luggage.
Besides the 109 surviving passengers and crew members, at least 16 of them injured, the U.S. plane was to bring to Helsinki the bodies of two passengers - a Japanese and a South Korean - who died in the still unexplained incident.
With the arrival here of the passengers and crew, Western airline and government officials hope to get the first explanation of what happened in the incident, so far one of the most bizarre in recent commercial aviation.
The Korean Air Lines plane, a Boeing 707, had left Paris Thursday on a polar flight that was to take it to Anchorage, Alaska, then to Tokyo and Seoul. Near the North Pole, however, it inexplicably made a virtual U-turn and, after crossing the Barents Sea, entered Soviet airspace.
Soviet jets intercepted the plane and, according to U.S. officials, fired at it, forcing it to land on a lake near Kem, about 240 miles south of Murmansk.
officials of the air line have speculated that the plane might have been hijacked. There are also suggestions that there may have been a navigational error.
Agence France-Presse said it had received reports that the plane was not equipped with an inertial navigation system, necessary in the polar region where magnetic fields make ordinary systems unreliable.
It was not clear whether the deaths and injuries to the passengers occurred during the forced landing on the ice-covered lake or at some other time.
The South Korean plane reportedly was carrying 51 South Koreans, 49 Japanese, five French, two British, two West Germans and two Chinese. No Americans were reported on the flight.
All but two of the survivors were brought to Murmansk by bus over rudimentary roads from Kem, near where the Korean plane crashlanded after a twisting two-hour flight pursued by the Soviet fighters.
The two badly injured passengers whose identities were not disclosed, had been taken by Soviets to Leningrad for medical treatment, according to Soviet sources. When the American plane took off from Leningrad, another Soviet plane bearing these injured, followeed and was scheduled to transfer them in Murmansk.
The Pan American crew was headed by Capt. Frank Ricci, 47, of New York City. The American diplomat aboard, George Rueckert of the U.S. consulate in Leningrad, was to represent the South Koreans, with whom the Soviets do not have diplomatic relations.
The returning flight was to carry the plane from Murmansk, capital of the Soviet Northern Fleet and base for many of its nuclear submarines, across hundreds of miles of frozen lakes and begs between Helsinki and the Soviet Union.
There were still many questions to be answered: Why was the Korean plane so far off course and was it hit by shots fired by the Russians? And why did the South Korean pilot, Kim Chang-Kyu, an experienced Korean Airlines pilot with five years of Polar navigation, land on a hazardous frozen lake of drifted snow instea d of at an airport to which the Soviets said they tried to direct the liner?
The Soviets were quick to assert that the incident had nothing to do with the crucial Strategic Arms Limitation Talks that had just gotten under way in Moscow between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and the Kremlin when the plane was forced down.
Theofficials statement of Tass, the Soviet press service, stressed that the Korean plane ignored repeated signals and maneuvers of the Soviet fighters while continuing south, deep into Soviet territory.
But the Tass statement did not mention the fact that two passengers had died and others were injured, nor did it say anything about the Soviet fighters firing at or near the passenger plane. Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin disclosed that deaths had occured in an exchange with a Japanese diplomat Friday in a routine signing of a fishing treaty at the Kremlin.
The errant plane first was report missing Thursday, when it was overdue in Anchorage for a refuelling. Canadian search planes began combing Northwest Canada for it, but were pulled back when they learned from the United States that the Korean craft was down on Soviet territory. White House National Security Adviser Zbignew Bzrzinski first asserted on Friday the Soviet fighter had fired on the craft.