Foreign minister Jaswant Singh said the hijackers and the released militants had entered Pakistan and were in Quetta, a six-hour drive from Kandahar. Quoting Taliban information minister Abdul Hayee, Singh said: ‘‘We have been informed that the hijackers and the militants are now in Quetta.’’
In a bid to convince the domestic audience that the decision to free the militants was the right one, the minister said: ‘‘National honour and national interest are not diminished by saving the lives of 160 people.’’
He asserted that India did not resort to any ‘‘compromise’’ nor did it strike any deal with the Taliban. ‘‘The fundamentals of our Afghan policy remain unchanged,’’ Singh said.
Having forced to swallow its statement that the BJP would deal strongly with militants, the government will now try and swing the needle of suspicion back on Pakistan. The government had initially targeted Islamabad, saying the hijackers had taken a Pakistan International Airlines flight to Kathmandu. But Delhi toned down its stance after some reports suggested otherwise.
Though he did not name Pakistan, Singh today said all five hijackers were Pakistani nationals, as were the 36 militants whose release was initially demanded. ‘‘It’s not an ordinary hijack incident. There were many strands to it. The inquiry set up by the government will reveal much more,’’ he said.
By announcing that the hijack team is now in Quetta, Delhi plans to turn the global heat on Islamabad. Among other steps, India plans to ask Pakistan to extradite the hijackers. By doing so, Delhi wants to send a clear message: either give up the hijackers or be branded as a country which is directly helping terrorists.
In a fillip to India’s efforts, the US has said the release of the hostages did not close the issue and the government will work with others to punish those responsible for the hijack and the murder of Rupin Katyal.
‘‘All parties to the relevant international convention on aircraft hijacking are obliged to prosecute or extradite those who committed this hijacking and the murder of Rupin Katyal. This should be our highest priority in the days ahead,’’ agencies quoted state department deputy spokesman James Foley as saying.
Though India is a signatory to the UN convention against hostage-taking, Pakistan is not. But there are other international agreements which both countries have signed. They include the 1963 Tokyo convention on suppression of offences and certain other acts committed on board an aircraft; the 1970 Hague convention on the suppression of unlawful seizure of an aircraft and the 1971 Motreal convention on the suppression of unlawful acts against safety of civil aviation. India can seek Pakistan’s cooperation on the hijackers by citing any of these three agreements.
Asked if Delhi planned to take up the matter with Islamabad, Singh said: ‘‘Appropriate steps will be taken at an appropriate time.’’ Pakistan has denied that the hijackers are in Quetta.
Though the foreign minister targeted Pakistan, he was reluctant to involve the Taliban. He again thanked the Afghan militia regime for cooperating with India. But Singh clarified that this does not imply that Delhi is ready to recognise the Taliban. ‘‘Diplomatic relations are a matter of convenience for a country,’’ he said in an attempt to reassure global powers who were a little anxious over the way India was cozying up to the Taliban.
Singh said the crisis peaked on the night of December 30 when the hijackers indicated they would blow up the aircraft along with the hostages if their demands were not met. The minister also made it clear that India could not have stormed the plane as the Taliban was against the move. Neither could the plane have been taken to another country as it was not ‘‘airworthy’’ and the crew members were fatigued.
Asked whether India could not have called the Taliban bluff by refusing to take a final decision — the militia regime had set a 48-hour deadline until January 1 for Delhi to end the standoff — Singh said the Afghan authorities would have forced the aircraft to leave Kandahar. ‘‘The Taliban has a different standard of assessing air-worthiness,’’ the minister added.
Singh said he went over to Kandahar to ensure that no last-minute hitches cropped up. The Cabinet Committee on Security had decided to send someone who could take decisions, if required, on-the-spot.
The hijackers initially had only pistols and knives with them as they were allowed to board the plane with handbags in which they managed to conceal the small arms. But once in Kandahar, they had access to the cargo-hold and could get the sophisticated weapons out.
This cache has led Indian authorities to believe that some Nepalese subjects and Indian Airlines staff in Kathmandu are hand-in-glove with the hijackers.
The investigators are convinced that all the five hijackers are Pakistani nationals belonging to the Harkat-ul Ansar. The government has indicated that there may have been a sixth man who issued directions to them. But officials are unsure if he had boarded the plane at Kathmandu or had joined the group in Kandahar.
The seven-member team of negotiators led by Vivek Katju had passed on intelligence to Delhi, which has now been corroborated by the passengers. The officials sent information that the hijackers began brandishing sophisticated and powerful weapons after the aircraft touched down at Kandahar on December 26.
The negotiators believe that the terrorists had only two antiquated pistols and a couple of knives when they made their first move around 4.55 pm on Christmas-eve.
Indian sleuths feel the cache of weapons contained AK-47s, Uzi submachine guns, grenades and explosives, most likely RDX.
Though he was non-committal on whether the Taliban had supplied the additional weapons, foreign minister Jaswant Singh admitted that ‘‘there was a quantitative and qualitative change in the arms displayed by the hijackers from December 26’’.
Investigators say either the aircraft crew was forced to open the cargo-hold or Taliban officials assisted the hijackers in unlocking the baggage compartment.
Indian officials added that the cargo-hold had a suitcase containing explosives that the hijackers could have used to blow up the plane, along with the passengers, had the government not agreed to release the militants.
‘‘The arms and explosives were inside the aircraft from the very beginning,’’ the foreign minister said, asserting that the weapons were smuggled inside the aircraft at Tribhuvan airport. ‘‘I was also aware of the fact that before finally leaving the aircraft and boarding the vehicle, one of the hijackers continued to insist on retrieving the suitcase which was not given to him,’’ Singh said.
He added that there was “real apprehension at one time that the plane had been readied for explosion along with the passengers”.
Asked whether this implied that Nepalese subjects were involved in the hijack, Singh said: “We do have some information about this and they will be made public at the appropriate time.” He, however, denied that G.M. Tamrakar, a Nepalese passenger on board, was one of the hijackers.
Investigators have established that one of the hijackers, who is believed to have reached Kathmandu a few days earlier, registered his baggage for the cargo-hold. The other four carried handbags containing the monkey caps, pistols and knives.
When you ask one of them how many passengers were there, they respond with the question: “Kitne aadmi the?” When you ask them what jokes were cracked by the hijacker codenamed ‘Burger’, you get the same reply: “Kitne aadmi the?”
Gabbar Singh, the ultimate villain of the Indian screen, had turned into the best diversion for the hapless people inside the hijacked Airbus.
R. Grover, an articulate export firm executive, provides these titbits about what went on inside the plane. Grover, an otherwise reticent, soft-spoken man, can lucidly describe what went on after the flight reached Kandahar.
Four hijackers could be seen, said Grover. The fifth, the leader, never came to the economy class cabin. He was busy with negotiations and the larger planning of the operation.
The Telegraph had earlier reported, quoting Geeta Baisala, one of the women released in Dubai, that one of the hijackers was called ‘Burger’ while another was being addressed as ‘Doctor’ or ‘Daftar’.
Today, after coming out of the Prime Minister’s house, Grover said the third was called Shankar and the fourth was a quiet person who did not mingle with them. He identified three of the hijackers as Burger, Doctor and Shankar.
Grover has kept the pack of playing cards he had borrowed from one of the terrorists. He played patience when the situation inside the plane had relaxed a bit. The rest of the time, he prayed — prayed to be with his wife who, he knew, would be worrying herself to death.
Once the plane settled down in Kandahar, the hijackers became more polite. Their earlier military manners, coarse way of ordering people around disappeared as the days wore on.
Sometimes, the situation changed. Whenever the going was not to the liking of the hijackers, tension would build up and there would be renewed threats. It was then that Burger stepped in.
With a Nepali passenger, he would enact the Sholay scene with Gabbar Singh asking Samba: “Kitne aadmi the?” Samba would respond in a peevish manner before Burger would conclude: “Aab goli kha (Eat hot lead).”
Grover did not say it in so many words, but the plane had turned into a living hell by the end of the second day. When passengers wanted to use the toilet on the morning of December 26, it was already overflowing with urine.
As the day wore on, the urine gradually seeped into the passenger area along with used toilet paper. They survived three days in such miserable conditions before the toilet was cleaned and one door kept ajar to allow ventilation.
The toilets were cleaned only twice during the entire stay in Kandahar, Grover said. But he added that the hijackers would share the same distress.
Once India began direct negotiations, they became friendlier and pleasant. But they never left the hostages alone. Two of them, with their eyes studying faces for the slightest hint of trouble, were forever in the economy class.
It was in the later stages, when families were allowed to face the misery together, that the hijackers told them things were progressing well. In fact, on December 30 itself they had told the passengers they could be released, but then kept quiet.
“It’s a lie,” said Grover when asked if they had been allowed to step out from the aircraft and take a stroll to stretch their limbs. “They never allowed us to go beyond the curtains that separates the business class from the economy section.”
Apparently, the business class was used to give some relief to passengers falling ill. It had become an infirmary where patients could only hope for the best and no medicines were provided.
For eight days, the passengers could not bathe or change their clothes. With no access to the cargo hold, where their luggage was, most passengers had to survive on the extra shirt or trouser in their handbag.
Grover said he had borrowed a T-shirt from a fellow passenger but simply could not think of bathing in that hell-hole. Besides, it is possible to wash your face at best in a cramped aircraft toilet. Taking a bath is virtually out of the question.
The last day was probably the worst. It was 3.30 am (Indian time) when the power went off. Even in Kandahar’s sub-zero chill, the passengers hung on because they knew from messages percolating to them from the previous day that freedom was near and they might reach Delhi before the New Year.
“Only once they came up to clean the toilet and help us freshen up a little and by noon we were released,” the executive said.