Hostage families vent anger at India's inaction

AS THE aircraft hijacking dragged into a fourth day, India's new government faced trial by public opinion. Relatives of the captive passengers on board Indian Airlines flight IC-814 vented their anger on the streets of Delhi yesterday.

The hijacking began on Friday when six armed men took control of an Airbus flying from Kathmandu to Delhi. The aircraft landed once in India, in Pakistan at Lahore, then in Dubai before flying - with some 160 people still on board - to the Afghan city of Kandahar, headquarters of the Taliban.

"The BJP [the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party] government is supposed to be supporting the public but they are no better than the last government," one man spat, as people shouted and demonstrated yesterday outside the residence of the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, in Delhi.

Some relatives stormed a press conference yesterday at the Ministry of External Affairs, where the Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh, was in his exquisitely orotund manner saying precisely nothing. They forced their way into a building where the crisis management group that is responsible for tackling such crises of the sort was in its fourth day of deliberations, broke the locked gates of the Ministry of Civil Aviation and had running battles with security guards.

India has seen nothing like it. Here were respectable members of the urban middle class - travelling by air is an elite activity in India - behaving like trade unionists and proletarians. They were maddened into action by the sluggish and flatfooted behaviour of a coalition government whose leading party, the BJP, was voted in as the acknowledged champion of this very class.

And they had a point. The authorities bungled badly on Saturday when the aircraft landed in the north Indian city of Amritsar after being hijacked soon after leaving Kathmandu bound for Delhi. It sat on the tarmac for half an hour, but the Indian authorities allowed the minutes to tick away without taking any action.

If the aircraft had been detained - by blocking the runway, for example, or shooting out the tyres - the country, which has commandos standing by precisely for emergencies of this sort, arguably could have ended the crisis on its own terms. Instead, the aircraft flew on to Pakistan, and the crisis flew out of India's control.

The whole of yesterday passed with the government giving a passable imitation of clinical death. Mr Singh stumbled from one vapid press briefing to the next.

At the end of the long and agonising day, the Prime Minister's remark regarding the hijackers' demand for the release by India of the Sunni cleric and Islamic militia leader Maulana Masood Azhar summed it all up: "No such demand has been officially received by the government."

The country's public and its rulers seemed to be living in different epochs. The people, awash in television news bulletins, footage of the cremation of one passenger stabbed to death, and interviews with desperate families, demanded instant action. Politicians, notably Mr Singh - a patrician statesman of the old school - seemed out of their depth, stuck in an era of secret, slow-moving diplomacy.

Only the hijackers' threat that they would start killing the hostages one by one - combined with the anger of the families - galvanised the government into taking a first step, 48 hours late, towards bringing the crisis to a negotiated end.

On board the A300 Airbus at Kandahar, meanwhile, the pilot, D Sharan, told the United Nations representative that the mental and physical condition of the passengers was "bad." The aircraft was filthy, he said, and the passengers were stressed and demoralised.

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