Negotiators begin 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 prepared to start talking to the terrorists in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, last night, after a high-level team 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.

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.

Kandahar airport was a scene of high drama yesterday afternoon as the terrorists' first deadline, set for 08.10 Greenwich Mean Time, approached. The Taliban authorities warned that if any hostages were killed they would storm the aircraft, which they surrounded with six truckloads of soldiers. This deadline 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.

The Indian government, apparently in a mist of indecision since the crisis broke, held meetings with 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 demands.

The hijacking, planned and executed with military efficiency, bears a similar stamp to the Kargil incident in the spring, in which hundreds of Pakistani troops occupied positions deep inside Indian-controlled Kashmir. Both initiatives took India completely by surprise.

Well-placed sources in Delhi believe that there is now a political consensus across parties to accede to the hijackers' demands for the release of Azhar and perhaps other Kashmiri separatists as well.

Anger at inaction, page 9