TRAIL OF TERROR: Boarding card blunder allowed hijackers on jet plane Muslim hijackers boarded plane on one card

THE INDIAN Airlines airbus hijacked on Saturday en route from Kathmandu to Delhi seemed likely to resume its odyssey last night, after Taliban authorities in Kandahar, the southern Afghan city where the aircraft had been parked for 24 hours, gave the hijackers permission to refuel and fly on.

But where the plane and its human cargo might be bound was unknown.

Slowly, the identity and demands of the terrorists have emerged. Allied to an Islamic fundamentalist militia, Harkat-ul-mujahedin, who were active in the Afghan war in the mid- 1980s and in Kashmir since 1992, the five, or perhaps six men armed with guns, knives and grenades are demanding the release of the leader of the organisation, Maulana Masood Azhar. Mr Azhar's brother Ibrahim is one of the hijackers, possibly the leader. Yesterday he reportedly left the plane to negotiate with the Taliban.

The hijackers therefore could not have chosen a more congenial spot than this country ruled by Islamic fundamentalists. But the Taliban, craving international recognition, have made clear they only allowed the plane to land on humanitarian grounds, and want no part in the negotiations. They have, however, forbidden any military operation against the hijackers.

The man the hijackers want freed has been the cause of at least three other hostage- takings. He was taken prisoner by India in Kashmir in 1994, and has been in custody awaiting trial since then. In July 1995 a terrorist group calling itself Al-Faran captured five Western trekkers in Kashmir, including two British men, and demanded his release. One of the hostages was later decapitated, and it is widely assumed that the others are now dead. The mysterious Al-Faran group is believed to be an alias for Harkat-ul-mujahedin.

The hijacking began on Saturday afternoon after the terrorists, who are said to have flown to Nepal from Pakistan, took advantage of Kathmandu airport's allegedly poor security to board flight IC-814, carrying guns and grenades. Four boarding cards, it is said, were issued under a single name.

The Indian Airline's airbus A300 left Kathmandu at 4.20pm on Saturday with 189 passengers and crew, including 16 Westerners, for the brief but spectacular hop down from the Himalayas to the north Indian plain and the Indian capital. It was half an hour into the flight, as the meal was being served, that five or six men rose from their seats, put on balaclavas and took over the plane.

Men and women were separated, the men being blindfolded and herded to the front.The hijackers demanded to fly to Pakistan but, when the authorities in Lahore refused landing permission, the aircraft circled for an hour before landing in Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs, just inside India.

It was at Amritsar, critics in India allege, that the authorities allowed the emergency to slip out of their grasp. India has a Crisis Management Group of commandos based in Delhi. But they were away in Kashmir. The staff at Amritsar's small airport, said to have received no advice, let the plane refuel and take off. It was also at Amritsar that one Indian passenger, Rupin Katyal, was stabbed to death after refusing to obey the hijackers' demand to keep his head down. Mr Katyal was returning from his honeymoon. His widow is still on the plane.

At Lahore the aircraft was forbidden to land and all the airport lights were extinguished, but the plane landed anyway. It then flew to Dubai, where 26 hostages, mostly women and children, were allowed off in exchange for food, fuel and water.

The hijackers flew from Dubai to Kandahar in Afghanistan, heartland and headquarters of the Taliban, 500km from Kabul. A United Nations representative secured the release of one diabetic prisoner, but otherwise there was a long stalemate yesterday.

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