Warning signals

Published : Jan 08, 2000 00:00 IST

The choice of Kandahar and Lahore as their destinations indicates that the hijackers were sure of protection from the Taliban and Pakistan.

THE eight-day-long trauma for the hijacked passengers of Indian Airlines' Flight IC 814 at the Taliban-controlled Kandahar airport ended with External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh handing over three militants - Maulana Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Ahmed Zarg ar alias Latram, and Ahmed Umar Syed - to the hijackers in return for the release of the 150-odd passengers on board.

It was a sad day for India. The Vajpayee Government was forced to bend following the fiasco in Amritsar on December 24: the Indian authorities had failed either to detain the plane or engage the hijackers when the Airbus A-300 landed at the Amritsar airp ort after the authorities in Lahore initially refused permission for it to land.

The inability to take decisions and the lack of courage to take responsibility for action on the part of persons on the ground led to the meek surrender. As India mulls its actions, more details are emerging about the seven days of ordeal.

The hijackers had made their links clear by first force-landing the aircraft at Lahore - in the process missing the control tower narrowly - on the night of December 24, and then planning to take the plane to Kabul or Kandahar (which do not have night-la nding facilities).

And then, clearing all doubts about their intentions, after being forced to land at a military base near Dubai, the hijackers took the plane to Kandahar the following day.

For full 24 hours, until the United Nations Coordinator for Afghanistan, Erik de Mul, reached Kandahar on December 26, it was the Taliban leaders who interacted with the hijackers. What transpired during that crucial period will, perhaps, never be known to the outside world.

As pressure mounted on India to send a team of negotiators, New Delhi waffled on whether or not to despatch some officials in the flight that carried Erik de Mul. Finally it was decided not to send a diplomat from the Indian High Commission in Islamabad. The Government decided to wait for an assessment from de Mul. This obviously was part of its "negotiating strategy".

Four Western countries, who had their nationals on board the hijacked plane, sent their Islamabad-based diplomats to Kandahar along with de Mul. As the hijackers started acting tough, these diplomats criticised the Indian Government.

Erik de Mul held five round of talks with the leader of the hijackers, who spoke Urdu with a Punjabi accent. The "leader", who was stationed in the cockpit, did all the talking. The other four hijackers spoke to none. It was all part of their strategy.

In his conversation with de Mul, the 'leader' referred to the Indian Government's record in Kashmir. He spoke of the alleged atrocities committed on 25,000 women by the Indian security forces there. He spoke as if he was delivering a sermon, and at the e nd of it told the U.N. official that it was useless to talk to him.

In response to de Mul's appeal to release the women, children and the sick, the hijackers freed Anil Khurana, a diabetic. Khurana, whose health was in a bad shape, vomited throughout the night he was released.

On December 27, A.R. Ghanashyam, Commercial Counsellor at the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, was flown to Kandahar. He landed close to a deadline announced by the hijackers. Shortly before Ghanashyam arrived, the hijackers took two foreign passenge rs into the Club Class area and tied them up; they threatened that they would kill them if India did not immediately open negotiations. The diplomat managed to convince the hijackers that a team of negotiators was on its way from Delhi. The desperadoes t hen suspended the deadline, which was to expire at 1.40 p.m. Indian Standard Time.

An Airbus A-320, with 52 persons on board, including a seven-member negotiating team headed by Ajit Doval, a senior intelligence officer, arrived that evening and opened discussions with the hijackers. Information available to Frontline suggests t hat some National Security Guard (NSG) commandoes were on board the Airbus A-320, ready to storm the hijacked aircraft if the Taliban gave permission.

In the meanwhile, New Delhi, through its High Commission in Islamabad, was working on a strategy to win over the Taliban. Essentially, India wanted the Taliban to agree to a storming operation, which the Taliban firmly refused. When it became clear that the Taliban would not play ball, the "honeymoon" between India and the Islamic militia ended. In fact, New Delhi established direct contact with Mullah Omar, the Taliban's Amir-ul-Momineen.

On the evening of December 27, the Indian negotiators appeared "very tense" as they began talks with the hijackers. They were also unsure of the kind of reception they would get from the Taliban, who are avowedly anti-India.

The hijackers refused to allow any food on board for 24 hours, a clear tactic to pressure the Indian negotiators. It was only on December 29, around noon, that they allowed food to be served to the passengers.

The negotiations dragged on through December 28, continuing in fits and starts. That evening Jaswant Singh announced that the hijackers were demanding a $200 million ransom and the release of Masood Azhar and 35 other militants.

Apparently, on occasion, the leader of the hijackers would speak for an extended period of 15 to 20 minutes, to which Ajit Doval would respond with an even longer reply. A typical exchange would be the leader launching into a long diatribe against what t he Government of India was doing in Kashmir, to which Doval would reply that the "excess" of hijacking could not be condoned as a gesture of redressing perceived excesses in Kashmir.

The conditions on board the aircraft deteriorated with the engines remaining shut for a full two hours. An Indian engineer, R.K. Sharma, was finally allowed into the cockpit to fix the auxiliary power unit. The engines, which had been running since take- off from Kathmandu, were restarted after he carried out the repairs. As Sharma worked on the engines, one hijacker held a gun to his head and the other to the lower part of his body.

Three employees of the Kandahar airport were allowed to board the plane on December 28 to clean the aircraft, which had begun to stink. The passengers asked them the obvious question: "Where are we now?" But the hijackers were ever alert. When they foun d the three cleaners assembled at one place in the aircraft, they pounced on them and searched their person for any weapons, before letting them off. (The aircraft was a shambles, by all accounts. Chicken bones were strewn all over the cockpit's panels; remnants of the food brought on board lay everywhere, and the place stank.)

On December 29, the Taliban got the hijackers to give up their demand for the $200 million ransom and the body of Sajjad Afghani, a Harkat-ul-Ansar leader who was killed in Kashmir.

Positive signs started emerging after this. Erik de Mul said that the prospects of a negotiated settlement had improved. "It looks as if the talks are moving in a positive direction," he said.

After making the hijackers to climb down, the Taliban began to put pressure on the Indian authorities. "If the Indian side does not peacefully solve the problem, our next step will be to ask the hijackers to leave Afghanistan immediately. If they don't, we will force them to leave," Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakkil told newspersons.

That night, the Taliban Shoora (ruling council) went into session and decided that no foreign power (read India) would be allowed to launch any commando operation to free the hostages. Clearly, the Taliban feared that India might launch some operation to end the hijack drama.

As a follow-up, the Taliban leadership sent a clear message to India, which expedited the negotiation process. Crack Taliban troops and a multi-barrel rocket launcher and two tanks were deployed on the tarmac around noon on December 30.

The barrel of the rocket launcher was pointed towards the Indian relief aircraft; the tanks too took up vantage positions overlooking the Airbus A-320. The Taliban, it appeared, were rattled enough to stage this show of strength, with the message clearly directed at the Government of India.

During all this, the negotiating team was haggling with the hijackers in a bid to get their demands whittled down. The Indian side, in what appeared to be a bargaining ploy, asked the hijackers to give more details about the militants whose release they sought. The deal itself was clinched on the night of December 30. Initially the Indian Government insisted that it would release only Masood Azhar in return for all the passengers. It is clear that the final deal was struck only after the Taliban began t o deploy its troops and weapons. Before the settlement was announced, the Taliban Foreign Minister stated that discussions were on about the future of the hijackers. Mutawakkil also said: "They (the Indians and the hijackers) are still negotiating on the number of prisoners to be released."

On December 31, the end-game began. Jaswant Singh travelled to Kandahar in a Boeing 737 to wrap up the deal, taking with him the three terrorists named by the hijackers. Soon after the Boeing 737 landed, around 4 p.m., Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Zargar and U mar Syed were taken down, bundled into a Taliban vehicle and taken close to the hijacked aircraft. One hijacker climbed down the engineer's ladder, took a good look at the released terrorists, and then signalled the other hijackers to come down.

With the hijackers leaving the aircraft, the transfer of passengers to the other two Indian planes began.

Significantly, Jaswant Singh, flanked by Mutawakkil, announced that the hijackers had been given 10 hours to leave Afghanistan. The Taliban put pressure on Jaswant Singh to make this announcement in order to ensure that India did not accuse the Taliban o f agreeing to give the hijackers safe passage.

There is little doubt that the entire hijacking operation was a "professional job". The manner in which the hijackers conducted themselves indicated that they had planned every move.

The choice of destinations - Lahore and finally Kandahar - indicated that both Pakistan and Afghanistan were countries that would afford them protection.

For the record, the Taliban said that the hijackers and the released militants were no longer on its territory and were now in Pakistan. However, verification of this claim is almost impossible.

The destination of the five hijackers, who left Kandahar in a Taliban vehicle, has become a major issue in India-Pakistan relations following a report in the newspaper Jang on January 1 that they had left for Pakistan on the evening the hijack dra ma ended. Taliban spokesman Abdul Hai Mutmaen told Jang, the largest circulated Pakistani newspaper, that the hijackers had left for Quetta, along with the freed militants and a Taliban hostage. (The Taliban hostage was reported to have returned s afely.) However, 36 hours after the report was published, the Taliban denied it.

The Taliban statement perhaps came as an embarrassment to Pakistan, which is a co-host, along with the student militia, of a large number of militant groups. The clear inference is that Pakistan got into the act and asked the Taliban to deny the statemen t.

Given the fact that Pakistan is a known backer and supporter of militant groups, it will come as no surprise that the hijackers and the released terrorists are now in Pakistan. "Yes, there is a possibility that the hijackers may have entered Pakistan. Th e (Pervez Musharraf) Government may say what it wants to say," Lt. Gen Hamid Gul (retd), one-time chief of the Inter-Services Ingelligence (ISI), told Frontline.

According to informed sources, the hijackers belong to the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, with which Masood Azhar has been associated in its previous incarnation as the Harkat-ul-Ansar. The Harkat, as is well known, operates from Pakistan and is headquartered at Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

"Unless the hijackers reveal their individual identities, nothing will be known about them. They have been very clever in hiding their identities," Gen. Gul maintained. (The identities of the three released militants, of course, is well known).

If the Taliban's claim that the hijackers will not be given sanctuary in Afghanistan is correct, then the only country which will afford them shelter is Pakistan. The border town of Chaman in Pakistan is a couple of hours drive from Kandahar.

However, given the sensitivity of the operation, the hijackers, in all likelihood, will avoid known routes and instead hole themselves up in safehouses or camps of the organisations to which they belong.

The Pakistan-Afghan border is a known smuggling route, crossing which does not pose any difficulty. Even if Pakistan placed its border checkposts on alert, the hijackers and the militants would have crossed over a few hours after the hijack drama ended.

A report in the newspaper Dawn on January 3 quoted Taliban spokesman Abdul Hai Mutmaen as refuting the claim that the hijackers and the released militants had entered Pakistan via Quetta. "They (the hijackers) left Afghanistan within the stipulate d deadline. They are not in Afghanistan. We are not bound to reveal their whereabouts," he was quoted as saying.

Another report in Dawn, with a Muzaffarabad dateline, said that members of the Muzaffarabad-based Al-Omar Mujahideen, to which Mushtaq Zargar belongs, had reportedly gone to Afghanistan, to receive their one-time chief. An office-bearer of the gro up told the newspaper that Naeem-ul-Haq, acting chief of Al-Omar, and Latif-ul-Haq, chief commander, had gone to Afghanistan.

The report also quoted a Harkat-ul-Mujahideen leader in Muzaffarabad as saying: "God willing, they (the released militants) will come here."

Sajjad Shahid, office-incharge of the hardline organisation, claimed that the "freedom fighters" were still in Afghanistan.

PAKISTAN, meanwhile, claimed that the hijackers would be tried in a court of law if they came to the country. However, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar has been quoted as saying: "I can tell you with full responsibility that the hijackers have no t entered Pakistan." The hijackers, he added, would be tried in a Pakistani court if they entered the country.

The manner in which the Pakistani establishment responded to the hijacking by saying that the whole episode was "stage-managed" by India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) was also a give-away. It indicated that Pakistan somehow wanted to protect the ide ntity of the hijackers. Pakistan needs to be asked what the need was to release the three terrorists and also provide safe passage to the hijackers, who killed Rupin Katyal in cold blood, apart from making the lives of 150-odd passengers miserable, if th e whole affair was stage-managed.

Given the fact that the Pakistan government and its intelligence agencies are deeply involved in supporting, fostering and funding all kinds of terrorist groups that operate in both Afghanistan and Kashmir, its bid to pin the blame on RAW is understandab le. However, in this case the facts have exposed Pakistani propaganda for what it is.

For India, there is a message in all this. The hijackers informed their interlocutors that this was the "first" action of its kind. More could follow. The warning from Kandahar is all too obvious.

The Government of India, its security agencies, and the State police forces need to pull up their socks. Given the kind of enemies the country is up against, there is no room for complacency.

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