Mockjack, hijack or high-joke
Wavering Musharraf triggers Blair dash
If it’s hijacked, I’m on it
Tokyo to Islamabad via Calcutta
Morning meet for overnight guest Blair
Modi pacifies Keshubhai
Delhi basks in thrill-drill glory
Twist of irony at Scindia funeral
Atal’s panel grounds Hussain’s sleuths
Calcutta Weather

 
 
MOCKJACK, HIJACK OR HIGH-JOKE 
 
 
FROM SUJAN DUTTA
 
New Delhi, Oct. 4: 
What happened last night aboard and around Alliance Air flight CD 7444? Was it a mock exercise organised by the intelligence bureau? Was it a hijack? Or was it a comedy of errors? Even a combination of all three?

After the hijack drama ended beyond 4 this morning, with an announcement by civil aviation minister Shahnawaz Hussain that it was a “false alarm” and that there was “miscommunication” between air traffic control at Ahmedabad and the pilot, Ashwin Bahal, the government today came out with a “blow-by-blow” account of the incident.

It does not explain anything, except to set the record straight on who received the anonymous call which said immediately after the plane took off from Mumbai for Delhi that: “This flight is going to be hijacked soon.”

That call was not received by Ahmedabad ATC, as Hussain had earlier said, but by Alliance Air in Delhi on telephone number 5671197. The message, taken by a supervisor, operations, quickly went up the hierarchy – to the Prime Minister even, who stayed up until 4 am. Home minister L.K. Advani was pulled out of his house and rushed to the civil aviation headquarters with a clutch of top officials.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee is said to be “displeased” and, not satisfied with the probe ordered by Hussian, asked for one himself.

The government’s account does not say who informed the pilot that the plane was to be hijacked. The entire crew is out of bounds, though the plane was flying today.

At 3.30 am, the government says, it was clear that there was no hijack. An Alliance Air official, however, said there was a “real” hijack. But the hijack theory is the weakest.

Passenger after passenger said they had not seen any hijackers. Suraj Baijnath, for instance, said he saw masked men with guns enter the plane. “At that moment I was beginning to believe we had indeed been hijacked.” Those men were NSG commandos who had come to rescue Baijnath and his co-passengers. “If there were hijackers, I didn’t see any.”

When the commandos entered, what did they find in the cockpit which the pilots, following procedure, had locked? “They found the pilots,” Hussain said.

They apparently found something more than that. An NSG official said “two fellows” had been picked up. These “fellows” happened to be Sushil Kumar and I.K. Sharma, who were detained, interrogated and released.

Was it then a mock exercise that spun out of control? Pakistan, for example, certainly believes it was a drill. PTV yesterday quoted some reports which warned of a hijack being staged by India to implicate Islamabad.

This theory would go thus. That the IB organised the drill, not surprising given the heightened sense of insecurity; a call was made to Alliance Air, setting in motion the chain of events.

The plan was going fine until Sushil Kumar headed to the toilet next to the cockpit door. Stewardesses told him that it was out of order and he could use the rear one. He refused to budge, demanded to see the captain and “started adopting menacing postures”. Captain Bahal then decided to shut the cockpit door. Sharma, an Indian Airlines employee, had wished to see the captain to find out what was wrong.

As CD 7444 landed in Delhi and waited in the isolation bay for three hours, the cockpit was in touch with the ATC, the passengers were in touch with their friends and relatives and there is no reason to believe that the cabin crew could not communicate with the pilots as there was no hijacker breathing down their neck.

Still, either side thought the hijackers were on the other side.

Shiv Sena MP Chandrakant Khaire, a passenger, said Vajpayee himself had told him it was a mock exercise, only to retract later.

Civil aviation secretary A.H. Jung told reporters it was “absolutely wrong” to suggest it was a mock hijack. He patted the security system on the back for the “clockwork” response to the threat.

   

 
 
WAVERING MUSHARRAF TRIGGERS BLAIR DASH 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Oct. 4: 
British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s surprise dash to Islamabad takes place tomorrow with the ostensible purpose of displaying “support for President Pervez Musharraf”.

But all indications suggest that Blair, going via Moscow, is heading eastwards to see if the coalition against terror could get more support from Pakistan. He will come to India from there.

Blair visits Islamabad amid signs that Musharraf is wavering in his commitment made to the US after the September 11 attacks to join the war against terror.

Sources here said Pakistan is making too many demands and asking too many questions. There have also been reports that Islamabad has not shared with the US the full intelligence about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts.

The US aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, which sailed from Japan for the Indian Ocean some days ago, was to use Pakistani waters to launch its operation in Afghanistan. But there are now doubts if that will be possible.

America’s fears about Musharraf spring from its experience. In 1999, the CIA had trained and equipped about 60 Pakistani commandos to enter Afghanistan and capture or kill bin Laden.

The Washington Post reported that the Nawaz Sharif government had arranged the operation with the Clinton administration in return for the US lifting sanctions against Pakistan. The plan was aborted after Musharraf threw Sharif out in a coup on October 12 just when the Pakistani team was ready to strike.

Madeleine Albright, who was secretary of state at the time, has confirmed on CNN that an operation against bin Laden had indeed been planned. The Post quoted a former official as saying that joint operations with Pakistani services are always dangerous since the Taliban have penetrated Pakistani intelligence.

Blair today said he was making the four-hour visit to Pakistan to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Musharraf, who has faced demonstrations at home against his decision to support the US. But it was widely believed that the strength of the protests was far less than had been feared. Musharraf’s problem, however, could lie with the army and not the people.

Immediately after the September 11 attacks, the US began to move in a manner which suggested that it intended to use Pakistan to launch its operation in Afghanistan.

Over the past few days, however, Pentagon officials have been trying to stitch together alternative arrangements. They have sought to secure bases across the northern borders of Afghanistan — in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld is touring Uzbekistan as well as some Arab nations. A Pentagon official told the New York Times that Rumsfeld had been sent as the US had come across “bumps in the road” in working out military arrangements in the region. But Pakistan is conspicuously absent from the itinerary.

   

 
 
IF IT’S HIJACKED, I’M ON IT 
 
 
BY PRADIP SAHA
 
New Delhi, Oct. 4: 
Pradip Saha was on the Alliance Air flight on which the hijack drama took place. He narrates his experience

I have been taking this late night flight between Mumbai and Delhi frequently, it’s relatively cheap, and the timing is just right for me. You can just walk into this flight; it is always empty.

The flight took off almost on time, another nondescript two-hour flight to Delhi. And nondescript snacks proportional to a cheap ticket. A few bumps in the high air that interrupts the sleep…

The flight touched down at Delhi at 0055 hours. The landing gave away part of the story: a landing with all cabin lights on, and no announcement for fastening of seat belts. A nervous touchdown and immediately after that a high-power brake, a little more than normal.

The aircraft made a quick U-turn in the middle of the runway at pretty high speed.

Something was wrong. I tried to rack my brain: does it take a U-turn there? And then I looked out and saw hordes of fire engines running parallel to the aircraft on the side. And the aircraft was going to some other place, not to the familiar tarmac. It stopped suddenly in the middle of a bay breadthwise, and I could see from my 9F seat the rows of fire engines, ambulances and some other vehicles coming towards the aircraft. They stopped at some distance from the aircraft and turned off their headlights. Obviously, something was happening.

I looked at the stewardesses in the front; they seemed emotionless, as if nothing has happened. I looked out and saw all the lights in that bay going off. The captain announced that there was some technical problem.

The stewardess told us that there was some problem with the door and it could not be opened, and that was a bad story. It was not a proper place to open the doors; it was far away from the tarmac.

A small buzz in the head: Hijacking!!! Are we really in Delhi? Or in some other place? I reached for my mobile and turned it on, and it was Airtel!

Obviously it was Delhi. Should I call up someone to find out the scene? I must say that most of the people around me had no idea that something abnormal was going on. What could it be? A bomb scare? Some VIP movement? I even thought of a possible refuelling of US planes in Palam. I thought of checking it out.

I called up my wife who answered after a while in a sleepy tone: “Oh, you have arrived, are you in the airport?” “Yes Debjani, but I smell something fishy”. I repeated my whole observation once again.

“Oh, don’t imagine things, are you all right? (Read: Are you drunk?) Give me a call when you get into a cab.”

I heard someone on my left talking on the mobile, repeating what the captain and the stewardess said. I called up my wife again, this time more assertive: “Please check the TV, I am sure something has gone wrong”.

She asked me to hold on. And then suddenly: “Oh my god, a plane has been hijacked, a Delhi-Mumbai flight, it’s on STAR News”.

“Delhi-Mumbai or Mumbai-Delhi?”

“Let me check. No, it’s Mumbai-Delhi.”

“Well, in that case I’m on the hijacked plane.”

”Don’t panic, stay calm.”

“Yes, I’ll.”

I sent a message to my brother-in-law in Mumbai. By then, I was exchanging notes with the fellow passenger at my back. I told him the fact (later turned out to be a fiction). Slowly, more people started using mobiles, it was a constant cacophony of various rings, and “hello, what? Aaj tak said so? But we don’t see anything. At the back? No, there is no hijacker in the back.”

After the first hour, passengers became a little easy, divided into small groups, and chatting away. Exchanging notes about different news channels as they heard from their near and dear ones.

There was confusion. Initially, we heard that there were two hijackers in the cockpit. Later, we heard that the hijackers were in the passenger area at the back. Each passenger was suspecting the other one.

And the captain made incoherent announcements once in a while. The worst one was: “Please don’t panic, this is just a mock hijack”.

Absolutely out of nowhere. I think the whole thing was not a drill, because then it will never be said while the drill is on, and most likely the pilot wouldn’t even know that it was a drill. The other one was also a gem: “Please be patient, we are in the last stage…” Of what?

   

 
 
TOKYO TO ISLAMABAD VIA CALCUTTA 
 
 
BY SUNANDO SARKAR
 
Calcutta, Oct. 4: 
Six Japanese military aircraft bound for Islamabad, now close to the epicentre of the world’s latest war-theatre, are scheduled to use the city airport for refuelling.

The refuelling halt, slated as of now for Monday, is unprecedented, say senior state government officials.

The six aircraft touching down at the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport have an official purpose — they are supposed to be carrying relief material for the thousands of Afghan refugees now flooding camps close to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. But the timing of the refuelling halt has given rise to intense speculation about the real purpose of the aircraft’s mission to Islamabad.

The aircraft — reports here have identified them as C-130H used by Nato nations for transportation of military equipment and paratroopers — will be accorded VIP treatment, say officials. A “very urgent” message came to several Union government ministries, including civil aviation, defence, home and the ministry of external affairs, on October 1.

These ministries immediately contacted the state administration, and a series of meetings between senior officials followed over this week.

It was decided that the refuelling stop would be kept as secret as possible, given the nature of protests in various parts of India — and West Bengal — have seen against the US’ threat of war against Afghanistan following the attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon headquarters on September 11.

Civil aviation officials were asked to ensure that the area where the aircraft would land was cordoned off. The administration has kept in mind the possibility of a last-minute change in the schedule as a “public outcry” or “strategic shifts” are not ruled out.

The first of the six aircraft is scheduled to touch down around 9.30 am. The next five aircraft would follow at intervals of about 20 minutes, sources said.

   

 
 
MORNING MEET FOR OVERNIGHT GUEST BLAIR 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, Oct. 4: 
British Prime Minister Tony Blair will arrive here tomorrow around midnight as part of his whistle-stop tour of South Asia to hold talks with the Pakistani and the Indian leadership on the fast-evolving situation in the region following Terror Tuesday.

Blair is scheduled to arrive in Islamabad tomorrow to discuss with President Pervez Musharraf his perception of the fallout in the event of a military strike by the US and its allies on Afghanistan. He is scheduled to reach New Delhi around midnight. The next morning, Blair will hold talks with his Indian counterpart, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and other senior members of the government before leaving for London.

Since the terrorist attacks in the US, the British Prime Minister has been touring different countries to build the widest possible coalition against global terrorism. He reached Moscow today and held discussions with President Vladimir Putin and other key Russian officials to coordinate their position on fighting the menace of terrorism.

Blair has been in touch with Delhi. He had spoken to Vajpayee over the phone for 10 minutes yesterday. After expressing his sympathy, he condemned the raid on the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly building and stressed the need for “rooting out” terrorism. The British Prime Minister appears to be totally in sync with New Delhi’s line that countries cannot be selective about fighting terrorism.

Blair’s visit to India — his first since becoming the Prime Minister — is significant not only because he shares the Vajpayee government’s view, but also due to his proximity to the American leadership.

The British Prime Minister is one of the world leaders who has been making it a point not to equate terrorism with Islam. In fact, during their first phone conversation a few days after the twin strikes in the US, Vajpayee congratulated Blair for a statement on those lines while pointing out that this was the view of India, which has the second largest Muslim population. India has been trying to tell the Americans and other Western leaders that Pakistan is not the solution, but a part of the problem of global terrorism. Delhi holds the military regime in Islamabad responsible for cross-border terrorism in Kashmir and elsewhere in the country.

It has warned Pakistan that India’s patience was fast running out. Delhi has been trying to mobilise world opinion that the terrorists outfits active in Kashmir were various fronts of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida, and demanding that the US should take effective measures against them.

Blair, too, has been talking about focusing world opinion on violence in Kashmir as in other terrorism hotbeds. South Block hopes that during his discussions with Musharraf, Blair will raise these points and urge Islamabad to desist from encouraging terrorist organisations.

The possibility of looking beyond the Taliban could also be on Blair’s agenda.

Musharraf has started distancing himself from the student-militia in Kabul. It is likely that both in Islamabad and in Delhi, the British Prime Minister will air his views on the crucial issue of how to prop up a regime in Afghanistan that will be representative of the different ethnic groups and will help in restoring peace in the war-ravaged country.

   

 
 
MODI PACIFIES KESHUBHAI 
 
 
FROM BASANT RAWAT
 
Gandhinagar, Oct. 4: 
Narendra Modi was today unanimously elected leader of the BJP legislature party after his name was proposed by outgoing chief minister Keshubhai Patel and seconded by industries minister Suresh Mehta. The 51-year-old Modi will be sworn in on Sunday morning.

Both Patel and Mehta, who had earlier resented Modi’s elevation, looked reconciled to the change of guard in an effort to project the “united face” of the “divided” party.

True to the conciliatory mood, Modi acknowledged their seniority. Aware that the two former chief ministers could be major irritants if not kept in good humour, Modi, after being elected leader of the legislature party, said: “I will continue to seek guidance from Keshubhai Patel and Suresh Mehta.”

Modi said the “replacement” of Patel was a change in the system and not a change of leadership, but left no one in doubt that Gujarat was making a new beginning under him with the slogan “Our Gujarat, a unique Gujarat.”

The new leader underlined the difficulty of his task, saying he was playing a “one-day match”. “To win this match and to win the heart of five crore people,” he said, he had “500 days and 12,000 hours”.

Modi sought to convey the message that he meant business and believed in action, not publicity. In a dig at his predecessor, he made it clear that he did not want anyone to publish congratulatory advertisements in newspapers.

Addressing the legislators, the outgoing chief minister compared the BJP to “a sky full of stars”. At times, some stars fall and get diminished, but the sky still has stars, he said.

Later, talking to reporters, state BJP general secretary and spokesman Gordhan Zadaphia said the new chief minister would continue to seek cooperation and guidance from Patel and Mehta. Asked whether Mehta would join the ministry under Modi, who he had called “too junior”, Zadaphia indicated he might. “The situation has changed,” the spokesman said.

Modi seems to have already changed the situation on the ground with his massive public relations exercise to win over every dissident leader, including veteran journalists. Sources say he has projected himself as an approachable man – something the outgoing chief minister was not, which led to the resentment against him in the rank and file of the Sangh parivar. In fact, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad leadership in Gujarat never got along with Patel.

Sources say Modi’s elevation is seen as the “last chance” to revive the party. While party workers are demoralised, the elected representatives fear they might not get elected the next time they contest in 2003.

The feeling now is that If Modi, the high command’s choice, cannot deliver the goods, nobody can.

   

 
 
DELHI BASKS IN THRILL-DRILL GLORY 
 
 
FROM JAYANTA ROY CHOWDHURY
 
New Delhi, Oct. 4: 
Ever since the September 11 hijackings of four aircraft in the US, Indian authorities have laid down a stricter drill for any plane suspected commandeered by terrorists.

Pilots of hijacked aircraft are supposed to press a button on the scrambler device known as Squark to inform ground control. Capt. Ashwin Bahal of flight CD7444 is believed to have hit this panic button soon after a passenger tried to force entry into his cockpit.

The crew is supposed to seal the door connecting the cockpit with the rest of the aircraft, to ensure that no hijacker is able to take over the controls. This new regulation was introduced to prevent trained pilot-terrorists who can fly and possibly crash aircraft into densely populated targets.

Crew members are supposed to try and calm down excitable hijackers as well as soothe frightened passengers. On the ground, air traffic controls are expected to remain alert and try to talk down the aircraft at the nearest “sanitised” airport.

A negotiating team comprising top aviation, civil administration, police and defence officers in the area is supposed to assemble at the airport to discuss terms with the hijackers as well as plot rescue operations.

Commandos from the nearest base, defence and police headquarters are supposed to surround the aircraft, ready for action. Sharpshooters are supposed to take up positions with orders to shoot off the plane’s wheels, if necessary.

Heavy vehicles are supposed to try and block the hijacked aircraft’s exit route so that the plane cannot fly off to a hostile nation as it happened in the case of IC 814, the Indian Airlines flight which was hijacked to Kandahar.

A crisis management group comprising ministers of civil aviation, home, defence and foreign affairs and an executive group comprising secretaries of these ministries, intelligence chiefs, police and defence top brass is supposed to meet within 40 minutes of information of a hijack to plot out strategy, which is to then relayed to the negotiating team at the airport.

Government officials claim their new preventive drill proved effective. In the words of civil aviation secretary A.H. Jung, “We can take pride, by God... it worked like a clock.”

   

 
 
TWIST OF IRONY AT SCINDIA FUNERAL 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI AND SUCHANDANA GUPTA
 
Gwalior, Oct. 4: 
Today, Madhavrao Scindia was scheduled to visit Chhatri — the royal crematorium — to supervise the building of a park around the Rajmata’s samadhi.

Even in death, he kept his appointment.

The irony of it all was not lost on royal gardener Ram Prakash, who wept inconsolably. He was there today with all of Gwalior and the top leaders of the country to watch the last rites of a Maharaja who could have been Prime Minister.

As the clock struck two in the afternoon, Rajpurohit Chandrakant Shinde instructed Prince Jyotiraditya Scindia to light the pyre amid the chanting of Vedic hymns. Twenty-one guns boomed.

Madhavrao was cremated less than 100 metres from where his mother, Rajmata Scindia, was consigned to flames barely 10 months ago. He was given a funeral with full state honour. His body was brought into the crematorium in a palanquin covered with the tricolour. The procession was led by the army band of the 18th Kumaon Regiment and gun salutes given by jawans of the 436 Air Defence Missile Regiment.

Among those present were Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, home minister L.K. Advani, parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan and chief minister Digvijay Singh.

Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah, who had broken down in the Kashmir Assembly yesterday, could not hold back his tears while paying his last respects to Scindia.

Jyotiraditya was the picture of grief. The royal purohit shaved his head and gave him a bath at the cremation site. The prince will be given the title of “Maharaja of Gwalior” on October 12, 13 days after Scindia’s death.

Everything was done in the true tradition of the Scindias. Close relatives and Maratha sardars led the procession. Smaller rajas, jagirdars and elected representatives of panchayat and city council followed. The womenfolk of the royal family stayed away. That is the custom.

At 10.15 am, the procession started from the Jai Vilas Palace for the Chhatri. Scindia’s body was kept in a palanquin which was mounted on a gun carriage.

Jyotiraditya led the procession behind the military band. He was accompanied by close male members of the family.

   

 
 
ATAL’S PANEL GROUNDS HUSSAIN’S SLEUTHS 
 
 
FROM SEEMA GUHA
 
New Delhi, Oct. 4: 
A “displeased” Prime Minister today replaced a committee named by the civil aviation ministry with another panel to probe last night’s “hijack”.

S.B. Mohapatra, special secretary in the home ministry, will now head the inquiry. Others on the panel are H.S. Khola, director-general of civil aviation; Hannan Gafoor, director (security) of Air-India; and a representative of the home ministry.

After a meeting chaired by civil aviation minister Shahnawaz Hussain, the ministry had named Khola the head of a three-member committee.

Even after a day filled with official explanations, a number of questions remained unanswered. Was it a mock exercise gone wrong or an abortive attempt at hijacking? Or was it a nervous pilot who set off the false alarm?

“We were prepared. Everything worked according to schedule. The plane could not take off. We made sure of that. Within minutes we had commandos encircling the plane. The Crisis Management Group was in action. Our systems are in place,” home secretary Kamal Pande said.

The government tried to gloss over the incident, saying no major damage had been done and no lives were lost. “We can’t isolate what happened last night from the events preceding it. The memory of the 1999 hijacking is still alive. The September 11 terror attacks is at the back of everyone’s mind. The pilot and crew members cannot be blamed for being nervous,” a senior official said.

The government was at pains to make the point that it was not a mock drill that went horribly wrong. “I can categorically say this was not a mock hijack exercise. It was simply a case of someone getting the wrong message,” another official said.

The ministry feels that the nervous pilot heard the word hijack and assumed the rest. Officials say an anonymous phone call was received and the air traffic control at Ahmedabad was asked to relay the message to the pilot. The pilot and the crew then worked on the assumption that hijackers were on board.

But the home ministry could not explain how civil aviation minister Shahnawaz Hussain deduced the plane was hijacked. Nor why his secretary A.H. Jung spoke of two menacing hijackers holding “something” but not a gun. Were they all playing to the television cameras? Home ministry officials are irritated with these questions.

The officials also admitted there were no sky marshals on board. Ever since the 1999 hijack of the Indian Airlines plane from Kathmandu, there has been talk of air marshals on internal flights. After the attack on the US, officials had said that air marshals were on flights to sensitive destinations. At the moment, 150 sky marshals are deployed on various sectors.

   

 
 
CALCUTTA WEATHER 
 
 
 
 

Temperature

Maximum: 31.7°C (0)
Minimum: 25.3°C (0)

Rainfall

2.7 mm

Relative Humidity

Max: 97%
Min: 79%

Today

Light to moderate rain, accompanied by thunder, in some areas.
Sunrise: 5.33 am
Sunset: 5.18 pm
   
 

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