Death threats force talks with hijackers

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The Independent Online
FOUR AND a half days after the hijacking of an Indian Airlines Airbus between Kathmandu and Delhi, India finally began talking to the terrorists in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, last night, after a high- level team of negotiators arrived from Delhi.

The government was forced into action when the six armed men who had seized control of the aircraft threatened to start killing the hostages if their demand for the release of Kashmiri separatists held in Indian jails was not met. There was also intense domestic pressure when relatives of the passengers took to the capital's streets to denounce the lack of action.

Two deadlines set by the hijackers passed and after several hitches the negotiators' aircraft touched down in Kandahar. The delegation was headed by a senior official in the Foreign Ministry. The flight also brought a relief crew for the hijacked Airbus, doctors and medical supplies and food.

The Taliban authorities warned that if any hostages were killed they would storm the aircraft, which they surrounded with six truckloads of soldiers. The first deadline set for 08.10 British time and a subsequent one set for three hours later passed without the hijackers taking action; by the time the first deadline arrived, word had reached them that India had decided to talk.

Officials who had earlier talked to the pilot over the radio said he made a desperate plea for help and sounded deeply stressed, according to Rehmatullah Aga, a spokesman for Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia. Several hostages among the 160 people waiting on the aircraft at Kandahar were said to have fallen ill. Most of the passengers on board were Indian but there were also 12 Europeans (none British), eight Nepalese, two Americans, one Japanese and one Australian. Many are believed to have been returning from honeymoon in Nepal.

Conditions have deteriorated for those on board since Friday. Taliban soldiers who have delivered food to the plane say the smell inside is rancid, a sign that people have been sick. "The situation for the passengers is getting worse," Mr Aga said. "They are tired and tense, and the hijackers are becoming agitated." The Indian government held a series of meetings with leaders of opposition political parties yesterday morning before announcing the dispatch of the negotiators.

Government sources in Delhi yesterday blamed Pakistan's military intelligence agency, ISI, for the hijacking. They said six men had seized the aircraft - four Pakistanis, one Afghan and one Nepalese. Among the Pakistanis is said to be the brother of Maulana Masood Azhar, the Sunni cleric and Islamic militia leader whose freedom is among the hijackers' demands.