Hijacked plane in terror zone
Pak stays out of firing line
Young couples on flight of fear
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Dec. 24 
In an unfinished hijack drama that unfolded over the Indian skies this afternoon, an Indian Airlines flight on way to Delhi from Kathmandu landed after many twists and turns at the Lahore airport in Pakistan late this evening.

Shortly after 10.30 pm, the aircraft, having refuelled, left for an unknown destination. Unconfirmed reports said the plane, with all 189 passengers and crew on board, had initially headed towards Taliban-ruled Kabul. But because Kabul airport does not have night-landing facilities, the plane could be heading towards the United Arab Emirates.

Hijackers communicating through the pilot conveyed to the airport authorities in both Amritsar, where the plane first landed, and Lahore that they had killed four persons on board.

The ordeal of the 189 people on board Flight IC 814 was far from over six hours after the nightmare began over Lucknow. At Lahore, where the aircraft halted for about two hours, the hijackers said little except demanding food and fuel. They did not specify their political or other demands and were simply intent on flying out. The Pakistani government was also keen to see them off, unwilling to shoulder the responsibility of ensuring the security of the passengers on board. There was no confirmation of the shootout on board except for the pilot?s version.

Not just the motive for the hijacking, even the nationality of those who executed this meticulously planned move was not known. It was clear from their initial keenness to land in Pakistan that they represented a fundamentalist Islamic cause and could be drawing attention to the festering Kashmir problem. The government wracked its brains to fathom how the hijackers could smuggle in grenades and pistols despite the security check at Kathmandu?s Tribhuvan airport. All Indian flights in and out of Kathmandu have been suspended with immediate effect.

Some Indian embassy officials are believed to be on board the aircraft.

On his return from Patna, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee immediately went into a huddle with his senior Cabinet colleagues. Later in the night, he convened a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security, where, among others home minister, L.K. Advani, defence minister George Fernandes, external affairs minister Jaswant Singh and finance minister Yashwant Sinha, studied the developments and maintained close contact with the crisis management group comprising senior bureaucrats, including Cabinet secretary Prabhat Kumar, which was monitoring developments at the civil aviation headquarters in Rajiv Gandhi Bhavan.

Pakistan, which had earlier refused the trespassing aircraft to land in Lahore, finally acceded after a request from Indian authorities. National security adviser Brajesh Mishra confirmed that such a request was made and he said that India was in touch with Pakistani authorities through its high commissioner in Islamabad, G. Parthasarathy.

But the Pakistanis outsmarted the Indians in the end by allowing the plane to take off and turn down the Indian plea that the aircraft be held back in Lahore.

The drama began around 5 pm when the Lucknow airport reported that the Indian Airlines flight was moving in a direction away from the path to Delhi. Alarm bells started ringing and it was soon realised that the aircraft was heading towards the border with Pakistan.

As air controllers got busy in their control towers at different airports close to the borders, it could be made out that the hijackers wanted to cross over and head for Lahore. Islamabad reacted strongly and the plane which was running out of fuel every hour finally sought permission to descend on the Lahore tarmac.

Islamabad, steadfast in refusal, forced the aircraft to change tack and head back for India. It forcelanded for shortage of fuel a little before 7 pm at Amritsar. What happened there is not clear.

At the Raja Sansi airport in Amritsar, the aircraft remained stationary for 25 minutes and the hijackers wanted the plane to be loaded with aviation fuel.

No one knows whether the hijackers panicked when the oil tanker moved towards the craft or whether the Indian authorities purposefully delayed refuelling to gain precious time and force negotiations. But soon afterwards, the pilot reported that four persons had been shot dead and that the plane was taking off without refuelling.

From Amritsar, the aircraft, charting a bizarre path, went over to Lahore and hovered over the now dark airport. Some reports say that even before getting landing clearance, the plane swooped down and almost veered off the runway before it steadied itself.

Pakistani troops and police surrounded the wide-bodied A-300 Airbus but showed extreme reluctance to cooperate with the hijackers. The hijackers, too, demanded only food and fuel and flew off immediately after their demands were met.

That the plane chose to head for Kabul has strengthened speculation that the hijackers are Islamic fundamentalists. What aggravates Indian worries now is that the Indian mission in Kabul has been closed since the Taliban takeover. Indian does not recognise the Taliban regime and if it has to take part in negotiations with the terrorists, Delhi will have to enter into a dialogue with the Taliban or depend on a third party.    

New Delhi, Dec. 24 
Pakistan today steered clear of controversy in its handling of the Indian Airlines hijack drama, initially refusing to allow the aircraft to land in Lahore and later giving the green signal on request from Delhi. But it failed to keep the hijackers from taking off for ?an unknown destination?.

The military rulers, however, refused to take blame for the departure of the hijacked flight, pointing out that India too had failed to stop the plane from taking off from Amritsar. Delhi had urged the Pervez Musharraf regime not to allow the take-off.

?It is strange that Indian officials asked us to prevent the aircraft from leaving Lahore after they failed to stop it from leaving Amritsar,? government spokesman Brig. Rashid Qureishi said.

Pakistan?s decision to allow the take-off indicates that it is trying its best to keep in the clear and avoid complications. The move also ensures that it is not responsible for what will follow.

Besides, it spares Pakistan the tough job of what to do with the hijackers if they turn out to be Kashmiri or Afghan militants. If it hands the hijackers over to India, it will be accused of buckling to western pressure and betraying the Mujahideen cause. If it does not, its involvement in the hijack will become the global talking point.

Prime Minister?s principal secretary Brajesh Mishra said after a meeting of the crisis management group that Delhi had requested Pakistan to allow the plane to land in Lahore. ?Now diplomacy takes over,? he said, adding that India was keeping tabs on the goings-on through its high commissioner in Islamabad G. Parthasarathy.

Foreign minister Jaswant Singh requested his Pakistan counterpart Abdus Sattar to provide Parthasarathy a helicopter so that he could fly to Lahore and negotiate with the hijackers.

Though the hijackers? identity is yet to be ascertained, suspicion is that they could either belong to an Islamic fundamentalist group trying to bring world focus on the Kashmir issue or an Afghan militant group. This view has gained ground since the aircraft originated from Kathmandu where both Kashmiri militants and Pakistan?s Inter-Services Intelligence are known to be active.

India has officially decided to wait and watch and has refrained from making adverse comments that could jeopardise negotiations with the hijackers.

Qureishi said Pakistan initially refused to allow the plane land since ?the Indian stage-managed hijacking of 1971 is fresh in our minds?. He added that the hijackers were not talking directly to Pakistani officials and were communicating through the pilot.

Qureishi also argued that the hijackers, as reported by the Indians, were speaking in Hindi ?which is the official language in India?.    

New Delhi, Dec. 24 
The smiles were turning into tears. And happiness into pain. At least three newly-wed couples were on the IC 814 flight, returning to Delhi from their whirlwind honeymoon in Kathmandu.

Sohan Singh, father of a 25-year-old who married two days ago, said things got off to a bad start. The couple lost their baggage at the start of the journey. But that did not prepare him for this evening?s agony.

?My children were on that flight. They had just got married,? said Sohan. Next to him was Arvind Grover whose brother and sister-in-law, too, were on the flight.

A little distance away stood Gopal Aggarwal whose newly-wed brother and wife were returning from their honeymoon. ?They got married on the 13th of this month,? he said.

All three reached the airport in the afternoon as the scheduled time of arrival was 3.15. A while later they were told that the flight was delayed. ?No one at the airport informed us about the hijacking. The security people told us about the drama on board much later,? Gopal said.

The airport and Indian Airlines authorities had set up information desks to update anxious relatives, but there were complaints all around that the service was less than satisfactory. ?It is about 45 minutes since they told us that the flight has landed at Amritsar. We do not know what is happening. They should keep informing us every 10-15 minutes,? grumbled C.M. Katyal.

The authorities, however, maintained that they were giving out all the information they had. ?They want to refuel in Amritsar. We do not know anything else,? says Naresh Chand, Indian Airlines general manager, commercial.

?Why did the airport and airlines authorities take so long to inform us?? the relatives kept asking. Sohan went on and on about the lost suitcase and the inefficiency of airport authorities. But the full impact of the hijacking was still setting in and the tension mounting as the minutes ticked by.    

Today?s forecast: Partly cloudy day. Mainly clear night. Not much change in night temperature. Max. temperature: 26.1?C (1? below normal) Min. temperature: 16.3?C (2? above normal) Maximum humidity: 94% Minimum humidity: 53% Rainfall: Nil Sunset: 4.52 pm Sunrise: 6.20 am    

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