Hijackers' terror allies gun down seven in Kashmir

YESTERDAY, ALMOST unnoticed among the blizzard of bulletins from the airport at Kandahar, where 155 passengers and crew were being held hostage on an Indian Airlines plane, came news that three Kashmiri militants said to belong to the fundamentalist Harkat-ul-Mujahedin, the same organisation as the hijackers, had stormed a paramilitary headquarters in Kashmir on Monday evening.

They took over the HQ and kept paramilitaries at bay for 24 hours. They traded gunfire all Monday night and most of yesterday and shot seven men dead. They were finally cornered and died in a hail of bullets yesterday afternoon.

Even with Maulana Masood Azhar, whose release the hijackers are demanding, locked in Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu, in the south of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the devotion to the cause which he inspires continues to haunt Kashmir. The man at the centre of the hijacking drama is short - about five foot - bearded, paunchy, bespectacled and with no discernible charisma.

"Sallow complexion, stout build, round face, protruding belly, eyebrows joined, thick lips," read the description in his interrogation report after his arrest six years ago. Prison officers described him as "religious and unpretentious" but "a hard nut to crack".

Mr Azhar is not physically prepossessing. And, though notorious as a terrorist, neither is he a fighting man.

At the Islamic University in Pakistan in around 1990 he enrolled for a week-long arms training camp for holy warriors, but decided he was cut out for a different role.

Yet the hijacking of flight IC814 on Friday was at least the third attempt by Mr Azhar's comrades to force India to set him free. British citizens were among victims in the first two attempts. In June 1994 Kim Housego and David Mackie, young Britons on holiday in Kashmir, were abducted by terrorists demanding Mr Azhar's release. After international lobbying, they were freed unharmed a fortnight later.

In July 1995 six foreign trekkers, including the Britons Keith Mangan and Paul Wells, were seized in Kashmir. One of them, a Dutchman, was later found decapitated, and the others have never been seen again. It is widely believed they must be dead.

Last night the hijackers increased their demands to include the release of 35 Kashmiri militants held in Indian jails and $200m (pounds 125m) and the return of the body of one of Mr Azhar's comrades killed by Indian forces. But Mr Azhar remained central to the resolution of the stand-off.

A native of east Punjab, Pakistan, his CV is fairly typical of Muslims at the cutting edge of the jihad to "liberate" Kashmir, which has been in progress for 10 years. After deciding against becoming a warrior, he chose journalism, editing a magazine in Karachi for mujahedin.

He combined this with fund-raising trips that took him to Saudi Arabia, Africa, Britain and Mongolia. He emerged as a force to reckon with in Kashmir not long before his arrest. After procuring a Portuguese passport under a false name in Britain, he flew to Delhi then travelled to Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital. His arrival coincided with the first involvement in earnest of Pakistani mujahedin with the Kashmiri separatist struggle, which until then had largely been fought by native Kashmiris.

His task was to bring together two militant groups whose parent organisations in Pakistan had dictated that they merge, but whose soldiers on the ground were reluctant to do so. Mr Azhar's religious credentials and force of personality were expected to do the trick. But he was arrested: his car broke down and he and his companions had to switch to an auto rickshaw - and one of the companions panicked when spotted by police.

Indian journalists who met Mr Azhar after his arrest were not impressed. "He lacked both the charisma of a religious teacher and the macho image of a mujahed," said one. But when militants in Kashmir bemoaned the loss of Mr Azhar, journalists realised the police had been right to rejoice.

"Azhar remained calm and, despite many provocations, he never changed his tone," a reporter recalled. He told them that he was "a simple cleric" who had come to Kashmir to "preach religion". Less than a month later, however, he boasted to an Indian news service that "the Indian authorities cannot keep me in jail for long. My comrades will get me out". His confidence in their loyalty has proved well-founded.

FIVE DAYS

OF DRAMA

24 December, 4.25pm local time: Flight IC 814 takes off for Delhi from Kathmandu with 189 people on board. Hijacked by five or six suspected Kashmiri militants. Lands at Amritsar, then flies on to a military base in the United Arab Emirates.

25 December: Hijackers release 27 and the body of one passenger stabbed to death. Aircraftflies to Afghan city of Kandahar. Hijackers offer to free all hostages in exchange for Maulana Masood Azhar, the Islamic religious leader held by India since 1994.

26 December: Erick de Mul, a UN official based in Pakistan, flies to Kandahar.

27 December: Threat made to kill hostages if demands are not met. Indian officials arrive and begin negotiations.

28 December: Pakistandenies involvement. India says demands include the release of 35 Kashmiri militants and pounds 125m.

Reuters

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago