Trade-off ends hostage nation�s agony
To east lies refuge and Pak

New Delhi, Dec. 31 
After eight days in blindfolded captivity, the Airbus hostages today returned to India and freedom after the government yielded to the hijackers and released three of the most dreaded Kashmir terrorists, triggering speculation that it had frittered away national security and dented the country�s image.

The passengers� terrifying odyssey across four countries ended this evening as the five hijackers leapt out of the plane and sped off in waiting vehicles, taking with them the three terrorists who were brought to Kandahar by foreign minister Jaswant Singh.

The passengers left Taliban land in an Indian Airlines A-320 and touched down at Indira Gandhi airport just before 9 pm. As they emerged, waving, a crowd applauded and cheered as the police whisked them away to cars with sirens blaring and red lights flashing.

��You can�t understand what I have been through,�� said Ashok Chawla. ��The hijackers were inhuman and kept on frightening us.��

For a week, a traumatised nation, an anxious administration and a host of jittery relatives have lived in virtual darkness waiting for the standoff to end. The final decision was taken at a meeting of the cabinet committee on security: the foreign minister was asked to fly to Kandahar with the three terrorists � Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Ahmed Omar Sheikh � to complete the bargain struck between the negotiators and the hijackers.

The Taliban, perhaps the real victor in the hijack drama, assured Singh that the air pirates would not be granted asylum in Afghanistan and had been given 10 hours to go ��wherever they wanted��. The three militants will be in temporary Taliban custody before they are handed over to a ��third country��.

But the Taliban has extracted its price for playing the role of an ��honest broker��. By appearing to talk tough with the hijackers, the militia regime has bought its passport out of the pariah nation status. It has also wangled from the Indians an assurance of a more meaningful relationship in the future.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee justified the government�s decision by making it clear that ��the safety of the passengers�� was the principal concern. ��India shall not spare any effort to fight the menace of terrorism,�� he said. ��The time has come for the world to fight terrorism and crush it. Let this be our first resolution for the new century.��

But Vajpayee�s address to the nation could not hide the fact that India�s image as a strong nation has taken a beating. The Opposition has begun baying for the government�s blood and charged it with ��compromising national security��. An all-party meeting convened by the Prime Minister on the developments turned out to be a damp squib with only the Congress and the BSP attending it.

That the government is not too upbeat became apparent in parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan�s comments after a Cabinet meeting. ��No one is happy to release militants. But we bargained it for the lives of 160 innocent passengers,�� he said.

Left with few options, it is unclear what else the government could have done to end the crisis. That the government was seriously considering releasing some of the 36 militants, as demanded by the hijackers, became clear yesterday after the Taliban surrounded the Indian Airlines aircraft with armoured vehicles and rocket launchers. This ruled out any possibility of a strike by Indian commandos.

While members of the Cabinet and the security committee mulled over the problem, Singh got in touch with his counterparts from western powers, especially the Americans. Indications are that the final decision to release the militants was taken after a conversation between the foreign minister and US ambassador Robert Celeste.

Washington�s concern over the Taliban is not only over the terrorist camps in Afghanistan but also over the quantum jump in narcotics production since the militia took control of most parts of the war-ravaged country.

What perhaps emerged from the talks was to ��soften the approach�� in resolving the crisis. Emphasis was laid on ensuring that the release of the militants is not seen as a ��triumph of terrorism��.

The need of the hour, it was agreed, was to show ��good sense and moderation��.

Singh, who has been the government�s public face and the main architect of the negotiations, was perhaps sent on the insistence of the Taliban. He may have also gone there to personally thank the Taliban leadership for the role it played, especially in ensuring that no passenger was harmed.

But his meeting with Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil is an indication of the shift in Delhi�s Afghan policy. India had been so far supported the Northern Alliance of Burhanudin Rabbani and had held the Taliban responsible for the spread of terrorism, particularly in Kashmir.    

New Delhi, Dec. 31 
The hijackers are headed towards Pakistan with their booty � the three released militants.

The blue Land Rover gifted to them by the Taliban was a giveaway of their probable destination. The nearest town from Kandahar is across the Pakistan border in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan. Before dawn breaks on the new millennium, this is the only place where they can celebrate their victory.

External affairs minister Jaswant Singh said in Kandahar the Taliban administration had given the hijackers a car and 10 hours to leave the country. The Taliban obviously had the security of the air pirates in mind when it made the arrangements.

To the west of Kandahar, a journey of almost a day across the mountainous terrain can take them to the Shia territory of Iran where they are unwelcome. To the north, a two-day journey beyond Kabul and Herat may carry them to Central Asian republics which have shied away from this crisis. It is east where lies refuge and friends and Pakistan.

If the hijackers have to beat the 10-hour deadline, Quetta is the only destination. So believe Indian security agencies. They point out the distance is probably less than 50 miles as the crow flies but the terrain would mean a somewhat longer route but not more than 100 miles. Ten hours is enough to cover this distance. They will have to pass through Chaman on the Pak-Afghan border and then avoid the road to the left that leads to Khost (within Pakistan) and take the right turn for the Baluchi capital.

The Indian agencies can predict the possible outcome of this journey in Land Rover. The extremists will reach Quetta and disappear, probably to be debriefed by intelligence officials in Pakistan. Pakistan will then deny all knowledge of the extremists arriving in their country. So will the Taliban who will announce to the world that all they know is that the hijackers and militants have left their soil.

The seven-member team of Indian officials, some of whom have pursued terrorists through their careers, were perhaps the most crestfallen to see their captives leaving Kandahar airport.    


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