Cash, comrades and coffin
Reformed pirates hijack birthday
Hostage in living hell
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Dec. 28 
After a day?s negotiations with Indian negotiators, the hijackers today increased their price for the hostages? freedom: the release of 35 Kashmiri militants, a coffin carrying the body of slain guerrilla Sajjan Afghani and a whopping $200 million in cash.

Afghani, a former Harkat-ul Ansar chief, was arrested in February 1994 and killed when Pakistani mercenaries made an abortive attempt to escape from Kot Balwal jail in Jammu. The hijackers are now demanding that his body be exhumed and handed over in a coffin.

Though one of the masked hijackers came out of the Airbus to talk to Indian officials, the fresh demands, according to agency reports, were written on a piece of paper and dropped from the plane.

The Indians would rather pay up than release the 30-odd militants. Officials indicated tonight that they would harp on the money part of the package and ask the captors to forget about Masood Azhar and the other jailed terrorists.

Even the ransom amount, which works out to almost Rs 850 crore, can be scaled down during hard bargain. However, one compromise the government will perhaps have to make is promise safe passage to the hijackers.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said the hijack of the Indian Airlines plane has precipitated a crisis before the nation. He asserted that the government is dealing with the situation ??resolutely?? to secure the safe and speedy return of the hostages. This, he said, would be done while ??fully protecting the interests of the nation in its war against terrorism??. Vajpayee said this in a message to delegates of the national council of the BJP now meeting in Chennai.

In Delhi, leaders, who were almost expecting the additional demands, lost no time in telling the world as well as the nation that the hijackers were criminals rather than Islamic mujahideen. ??It?s time for the international community and the nation to reflect on this,?? foreign minister Jaswant Singh told reporters in the evening after the Union Cabinet met to discuss the new developments.

The first reaction of the world leaders to the fresh demands came from the United Nations representative for Afghanistan, Erick de Mul. ??The demands are too high to be met,?? he said, ??but it is for the Indian government to take a final decision on this.??

De Mul, who has been in Kandahar since Sunday, said he would return to Pakistan later tonight. ??The UN role will be at a minimum,?? he said. ??The talks are now between the hijackers and the Indian negotiators.??

As part of India?s diplomatic effort to isolate the hijackers, leaders of various countries, including those of the Permanent Five, came out with statements condemning the act and demanded the immediate release of the innocent passengers and crew.

Diplomats from several other countries ?particularly those whose nationals are among the 160 hostages ? have already reached Kandahar.

Apart from the assurance given by the Taliban leadership that it will not allow any bloodshed on its soil and it will not hesitate to storm the aircraft if any hostage is killed, the presence of these diplomats also reduces the chance of the passengers being harmed.

Playing on the humanitarian angle, Singh said India has made an appeal to the hijackers to at least release the women and children. There are still 45 women and two children in the aircraft. This request, according to the Taliban, was also made by them. But so far, the hijackers have showed no signs of obliging.

India would like to reduce the number of passengers inside in case it decides to storm the aircraft.

Singh told reporters that so far three rounds of talks have been held between the Indian negotiators and the hijackers. The Taliban has also been playing a mediatory role in the exercise. ??I express my gratitude to the cooperation extended by the Taliban,?? the foreign minister said.

He said he was in touch with several countries which also included Iran, a sworn enemy of the Taliban.

Commenting on this, Singh said: ??In these circumstances, the question of friendliness or unfriendliness does not arise. It is a humanitarian issue and we will not hesitate talking to anyone, anywhere in the world.??

Though Singh did not absolve Pakistan of its complicity in the hijack crisis, he toned it down considerably.

The foreign minister reiterated his earlier position that the Harkat-ul Ansar was formed and nurtured in Pakistan and the demand for the release of Azhar, a Pakistani national, indicates that the present crisis originated from Islamabad.

But he also hinted that New Delhi may not hesitate accepting Pakistan?s help in resolving the hijack standoff.

Though the Taliban has assured India that it will not encourage any bloodshed on its soil, it appears that the militia regime in Afghanistan is keen for an early end to the deadlock.

??We see it like this: the Indians have one key and the hijackers have one, while the Taliban is holding the lock firmly and urging them to open it. We wish and are eager to see the lock opened,?? Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil said.

Indian leaders see this as a pressure tactic deployed by the Taliban, though publicly it is not willing to admit it. This, perhaps, is one reason why the government is considering the option of coughing up the money and buying the hostages? release.    

Kathmandu, Dec. 28 
Two men were present at King Birendra?s 55th birthday reception today who had been part of the team that hijacked the first plane in Nepal.

Former Prime Minister and Nepali Congress chief Girija Prasad Koirala and agriculture minister Chakra Prasad Banstole were, however, silent as the conversation kept veering back to the IC 814 hijacking.

But other guests at the reception hosted by Prime Minister K.P. Bhattarai could talk of nothing else. The ministers, diplomats, politicians and business magnates of the Himalayan kingdom had gathered to celebrate their monarch?s birthday. But the atmosphere in the sprawling forecourt of the Singha Durbar was sombre, the overcast sky adding to the gloom.

The royal couple were not present, having chosen to spend time in the jungles of south-central Nepal while week-long celebrations for the monarch?s birthday were on in the capital. King Birendra turns 55 tomorrow. Crown Prince Dipendra was there, however, to make up for his parents? absence. An army band played the national anthem as he walked in.

Most of the guests were unhappy with the coverage of Friday?s hijacking in the Indian media, which has held Nepal primarily responsible for the incident. The lax security at the Kathmandu airport, from where the Indian Airlines flight took off, has been widely criticised in the media.

The guests were also cut up with reports that a Nepali citizen, G.M. Tamrakar, was one of the hijackers. According to reports, Tamrakar bought the tickets for all the hijackers and smuggled the men into the Indian Airlines flight, bypassing security checks. He was also believed to be a close associate of the slain Nepali minister Mirza Dilshad Beg, whose links with the ISI and underworld don Dawood Ibrahim are well-known.

The Nepalese media hit back today, accusing India of acting as the Big Brother. Leading papers ran reports on Tamrakar, who is in his thirties, has a business in pashmina shwals and lives at Balaju here. He has played the comedian in a few Nepali films and even had a share in a cinema theatre. The papers also published pictures of Tamrakar with his family.

Nepal Samachar, a city-based daily, described the reports in the Indian media as an ?attack on the Nepalese as a nation?. Ruprekha, a pro-communist weekly, said Delhi was trying to take over Nepal?s security by focusing on the hijacking.

The Opposition Nepali Congress has, however, criticised the security lapses at the Kathmandu airport and called for the resignation of the home and civil aviation ministers.

The party?s leader, Koirala, along with Banstole, had been part of the team that received the hijacked Nepal plane at Forbesganj in Bihar in 1973. The aircraft was hijacked by Durga Subedi, also a senior political leader now, as part of the pro-democracy movement against the partyless panchayat regime. The official statements issued by his party apart, Koirala has so far not commented on the Indian Airlines hijacking.

Nepal?s foreign minister today said the country would help India identify the hijackers.    

New Delhi, Dec. 28 
Blindfolded, the hungry hostages hold handkerchiefs to their noses as the stench inside the Airbus gets unbearable. Its toilets uncleaned for 96 hours, the hijacked plane sits on the tarmac, engines off, doors shut and shades drawn.

A Taliban soldier, passing a plate of rice through a window to the hostages, quickly draws his hand up to cover his nose. The rancid smell from inside the plane is overwhelming, a sign that people had been sick. ??It is very bad. The situation for the passengers is getting worse,? a Taliban spokesman said.

To add to the passengers? misery, the aircraft?s engine died out this morning after it ran out of fuel. Air cannot circulate within the plane once the power goes off. An AFP report said that when the negotiators began the third round of talks in the morning, the overpowering stench forced them to cover their noses.

A breakfast of eggs, bread and mineral water was allowed in today after the hijackers refused food throughout yesterday. All hostages, including the children, had to go hungry as the terrorists, angry that Taliban troops had surrounded the aircraft, refused to let in lunch and dinner.

The government claimed today that the rear toilet was cleaned. Though the hijackers refused to let airport staff enter the plane, the Taliban authorities had the toilet drained from outside. The stench remained till evening when the terrorists allowed one of the doors to be kept open for some time. Passengers were permitted a change of clothes kept in their hand-baggage.

Two passengers suffering from cancer were allowed to come out of the aircraft fo