Hijackers demand release of prisoners

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The Independent Online
HIJACKERS holding more than 160 hostages on an Indian Airlines plane in southern Afghan- istan issued their first public demands last night, seeking the release of a detained Islamic religious leader and several Kashmiri fighters in Indian jails.

Although the identity of the hijackers remained mysterious, an Afghan official who relayed their demand for the release of the cleric, Maulana Masood Azhar, said they "looked like they could be Kashmiri".

The Airbus A-300 had been stranded on the airport tarmac at Kandahar since yesterday morning after a journey across South Asia and the Gulf, including stops in India and Pakistan.

Last night the hijackers were refusing to leave Afghanistan, despite demands from the Islamic Taliban militia, which rules 90 per cent of the war-torn country, to do so. A civil aviation official in Kandahar said the armed group had threatened to take off and crash the plane if they were not allowed to remain in Afghanistan.

The hijackers struck on Friday during a flight from Kathmandu to New Delhi, killing at least one passenger, whose body was released during a stopover in the United Arab Emirates. One unconfirmed report said that airport workers who went aboard the plane had seen three more bodies. Between 25 and 27 other hostages were also released in the UAE.

The Taliban provided the hijackers and hostages with food and were reported to have refuelled the plane, although India's external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, denied this. Indian officials were thought to be trying to persuade the Taliban to keep the plane on the ground, and Mr Singh said he had no evidence to link the hijackers to the purist Islamic Taliban movement.

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