Delhi smells Pak-Taliban Kargil revenge plot
Families raise toast to freedom
Atal walks tightrope between party and people
Opp. fires security salvo
After kid gloves, the iron fist

New Delhi, Dec. 31 
The plot to hijack the Indian Airlines plane was hatched by the Pakistani intelligence and terrorist groups, with the cooperation of the Taliban, according to security agencies.

Two kidnappings of top Indian politicians or their near ones were also lined up for the same day.

The plan was worked out over one month and was aimed at avenging the Kargil defeat and publicising the Kashmir issue like never before.

Indian security agencies have now largely been able to figure out how the operation was planned.

Two friendly Western nations provided intelligence back-up in the form of communication intercepts between a Pakistani station, Kandahar and the hi-jackers.

The Pakistani Intelligence Bureau, which along with the ISI carries out intelligence operations abroad, the top Taliban leadership and terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen worked out the scheme to hold India to ransom.

They had planned to hijack an Indian aircraft originating from foreign soil and kidnap either two important personalities or groups of well-known people from the national political establishment.

Five of the best terrorists from the two Pakistan-based outfits were handpicked for the job. They were trained to hold out against international pressure, go without food in extreme circumstances and, most important, to bargain.

For maximum impact, all three operations were to be conducted on the same day.

However, the kidnapping plan was dropped by the Pakistani intelligence possibly because past abductions in Jammu and Kashmir had failed to evoke the desired response from the Centre.

The sustained militant attacks on security forces, including the army, were a precursor to the hijacking.

After the kidnappings were aborted, the initial plan to hijack an aircraft on December 27 was advanced to December 24. The hijackers were informed of the change in plans at a “very short notice”.

“The Pakistanis passed on the message to the hijackers and directed them to launch the operation. After all, the logistics were ready and the plan solid,” a security official said.

Officials are tightlipped on whether the hijacking was brought forward because the Pakistanis had found out that an important Indian official was to fly to Delhi on IC 814. Travel plans of the official should have been secret.

On December 24, five hijackers — identified as Pakistani nationals, at least one of whom is an intelligence officer — boarded the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight PK-804 and landed at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International airport at 9.30 am.

They were met at the airport by a Nepali national, most probably G.M. Tamrakar. It is being checked whether the intelligence officer sneaked out of the hi-jacked plane either in Dubai or Kandahar.

Tamrakar, two of whose brothers are top smugglers, took the five to Kunal Guest House near the airport. There, one hijacker made a call over a mobile phone, possibly to the Pakistani “handler”.

Having sorted out the travel details, including air tickets and fake identity documents, the hijackers returned to the airport and sneaked into the departure lounge.

Tamrakar’s contacts among airport authorities helped them bypass security checks. The tickets were purchased from Himalayan Travel and Tours and Gorkha Travel and Tours.

Two Pakistani intelligence officers, Mohammad Arshad Cheema and Minhas, working under cover from the Kathmandu embassy, provided the back-up. Cheema, a first secretary in the mission, visited the airport on Friday and stayed there for an hour before returning to the embassy.    

New Delhi, Dec. 31 
Millennium celebrations began early at Centaur Hotel as the relatives’ agonising week-long vigil ended at last. The party started as soon as news of the imminent release of the hostages came through.

There was laughter and cheer in the foyer of the hotel which till last night was sunken in gloom.

As the winter fog began to envelop the capital, relatives planned the evening with a “single malt whiskey” and rum. “We will celebrate the new millennium in the hotel,” said one relative.

“The party has begun,” said Sanjeev Chibber whose entire family was on the hijacked flight.

Ritu Goyal, whose brother and sister-in-law were among the hostages, talked incessantly to the media. “All these days, I have been living on lime water. Today I will take my first bite from my brother and the second from my sister-in-law,” she beamed.

The A.B. Vajpayee government, which was beginning to look more and more like a “monster” to the relatives, had suddenly turned into a cherubic angel. “I am least bothered about politics. I think Vajpayee is the best Prime Minister,” said Ritu.

Even the Taliban won accolades from the relatives for their “support and cooperation.” “I wish to thank the Taliban for their inspired leadership. Without their cooperation this would not have been possible,” stressed Chibber.

The release of the three terrorists, including the dreaded Masood Azhar, did not bother them. “It is a diplomatic victory for the government. India had isolated the terrorists. No country was allowing them entry,” said K. Goyal.

The mood among the relatives had swung from abject despair to unrestrained joy. Four days ago Mani, whose son-in-law was on the hijacked plane, was freely abusing the government for not moving fast enough. Today his face was wreathed in smiles. “The day we screamed we did not understand the matter fully. But later Vasudhara Raje explained the whole thing,” pointed out an unabashed Mani.

Outside Scindia House, where the relatives met often over the past few days, there were hugs and relieved smiles. “I cannot explain how I feel,” said Vijay Sharma. “In the last few days, we have all become experts on terrorism,” he added.

Most relatives ducked the question of what the release of the terrorists meant for India and the repercussions it could have. “Government policy,” said some. “It is a question of long-term security policy. There is obviously a need for a well thought out policy to checkmate terrorism in the country,” said a relative.

But not everyone was ecstatic about the government’s decision. “They should not have released the terrorists. I lost my brother in Kashmir militancy,” said Muni Hassan at the Centaur hotel. “If the government had to release the terrorists. Why didn’t they do so on day one? Why waste so much time?” his friend asked.    

New Delhi, Dec. 31 
It was a defensive Prime Minister who addressed the nation this evening. Atal Behari Vajpayee lost no time in using the occasion of millennium-eve to ensure that his image, improved since his handling of the Kargil crisis, did not take a beating due to the hijack.

His speech was largely to justify the crucial decision of letting off three hardcore militants in exchange for the hostages.

The Prime Minister told the nation that he had not paid too heavy a price. He said his government was able to “substantially scale down their demand” and reminded people that the hijackers had asked for the release of 36 terrorists. He did not go into the details of the importance of the militants released.

The Prime Minister expressed satisfaction with the fact that the hostages would soon be back with their families to “usher in a new year”.

“While dealing with the hijackers,” he said, “the government was guided by two concerns: the safety of the passengers and the crew, and the long-term, overall interests of our country.”

Vajpayee could not avoid giving this explanation for the militants’ release. Even before foreign minister Jaswant Singh had returned with the freed hostages, the Congress and the Left had started making noises.

The Opposition had said they would withhold criticism till the drama was over. This evening itself, they started blaming the government for compromising on the nation’s security.

Vajpayee’s message was meant for the exclusive BJP audience as well. It is the BJP that harps on nationalism, a stance which its detractors consider too rabid at times. Therefore, it was important to dispel any misgiving among BJP workers who might have felt that the party caved in because it could not risk alienating the public.

The speech also had a hint of fresh determination to face the menace of terrorism. Vajpayee described the hijacking as “diabolic and evil” and insisted that India would not “spare any effort to thwart the phenomenon of terrorism itself”.

This implied the government would reconsider its anti-terrorism programme and make it much tougher.

Playing on the sentiments of the world community, Vajpayee described terrorism as a “crime against humanity” and said the time had come for the world to “confront this evil to act in concert and crush it”.    

New Delhi, Dec. 31 
The Opposition today lashed out at the government for releasing three hardcore terrorists, accusing it of abject failure in safeguarding the country’s security.

An impromptu all-party meeting called by the Prime Minister after the deal was struck with the hijackers turned out to be a damp squib with only the Congress and the BSP attending it.

Senior Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee said it was ‘‘inexplicable’’ why the government had failed to act in Amritsar.

The Congress charged the government with compromising national interest and claimed this is the first time since the Rubaiya Sayeed kidnapping in 1990 that the Centre had succumbed to pressure from militants.

CPI leader A.B. Bardhan also accused the government of failing to act promptly and said it had compromised national security.

Rashtriya Janata Dal spokesman Dhirendra Pratap demanded the resignation of home minister L.K. Advani for landing the country in this ‘‘mess’’.

BSP chief Kanshi Ram said after Kargil, this was the second intelligence failure. He said he was not sure whether three or four terrorists had been released. ‘‘We were not given any additional facts at the all-party meeting. Some said three, some said four,’’ he said.

Kanshi Ram said the Prime Minister had admitted that the release of the militants could pose the danger of ‘‘future blackmail’’.

Mukherjee said the ‘‘government has succumbed to the pressure of hijackers... National interest was not to succumb to the hijackers’ demands’’.

He expressed fears that such actions could embolden the terrorists to extract their demands in the future. Mukherjee said Congress governments had firmly dealt with similar incidents.    

New Delhi, Dec. 31 
North Block has already begun a rethink on tougher ways to deal with Kashmir terrorism. Now that the country has been forced to release three militants, a high-level meeting is on the cards where the government will consider a “pro-active” policy to “try and crush terror” with a “vengeance”.

Sources said the government anticipates a rise in terrorist strikes, especially on security camps. To pre-empt this, the Centre has drawn up an action plan of which the first step will be to hunt out mercenaries already in India and whose dossiers are in the possession of the Jammu and Kashmir government and the central paramilitary forces.

The second step will be to conduct raids on more terrorist hideouts and homes where they have been given shelter. Stealth attacks on terrorist camps have also not been ruled out.

A propaganda war will be launched simultaneously. During his brief tenure as information and broadcasting minister, Pramod Mahajan had started the process of setting up new Doordarshan and All-India Radio channels.

Sources said present incumbent Arun Jaitley will be asked to speed up the process. At present, information filters into Jammu and Kashmir through Pakistani television channels.

With the government determined to crush terrorism, human rights is not likely to be one of its priorities in the next few months. Security forces and the police will have the licence to kill on the basis of suspicion alone.

For the civilian population of Kashmir, it means a return to the early Nineties when security forces enjoyed a greater degree of freedom. “It is likely that there will be heavy casualties on both sides,” a senior official said.

According to sources, the home ministry will discuss these issues with the chiefs of paramilitary forces, the army and heads of other security agencies.

The ministry is aware that the morale of forces posted in the state has taken a severe beating after the recent spate of killings. The hijack and the subsequent compromise are bound to affect them further.

To boost the troops, the ministry will want the chiefs to inculcate in the rank and file a new vigour to combat terrorism. Monetary incentives are also being considered.

The government is already working on a scheme to send efficient IAS and IPS officers from other cadres and send them on deputation to the state so that they can infuse a degree of administrative effectiveness and lead the forces at the local level.

Efforts are also on to hasten the trial of arrested foreign mercenaries and local militants. The government believes that a few early convictions and tough sentences would stop young Kashmiris joining different militant groups.    


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