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Ben-Gurion International Airport air traffic controllers prevented a potentially deadly collision at the last minute yesterday, as an Italian passenger plane moved to take off from a runway where an Israir airliner was about to land.

Additionally, an El Al airplane en route to Hong Kong had to make an emergency landing at Tashkent, Uzbekistan, because of an engine malfunction.

The Alitalia aircraft apparently had entered the airport's only operational runway accidentally, without being instructed to do so.

El Al pilots who were waiting for takeoff behind the Italian plane noticed the mistake and immediately told the control tower. The control tower quickly warned the Israir pilot not to land.

The Israel Airports Authority launched an investigation into the incident, which it called a serious safety failure.

The Israeli Boeing 777 that landed at Tashkent was carrying 235 passengers. The malfunction - which was later traced to the engine fluids - was the third safety incident in four weeks involving El Al plains in the Far East.

The emergency landing disrupted El Al's flight schedule, as Israel's national airline had to send another airliner to pick up the stranded passengers from Tashkent, and transport passengers waiting to fly from Hong Kong to Tel Aviv. El Al said the company had arranged hotel accommodations for the passengers.

Last month, an El Al plane had had to extend its layover in Bangkok after a bird flew into its windshield. Before that, an El Al airplane carrying 178 passengers was fitted with the wrong type of landing gear at Bangkok.

Ben-Gurion Airport, Israel's main gateway to the world, has accumulated a worrisome record of near collisions in the past few months. In August, a report on a near-collision on February 8 revealed serious safety violations and antiquated equipment at the airport. The report named neglected infrastructure as the main reason for these malfunctions.

According to the report, although a great deal of money was invested in the construction of a new terminal, no funds went toward improving the runways and control tower, and only one of the airport's three runways is equipped for automated landing.

In addition, the physical conditions at the airport make it difficult for the control tower to correct the flight paths of planes flying too close to each other.

The report recommended installing automated landing equipment on all the runways and building a new control tower or renovating the old one, as well as reconsidering its location.