The release of 26 passengers, including most of the children, at the Al-minhat air force base near Abu Dhabi came as little solace as the hijackers offloaded the body of a young honeymooner they had killed. The plane, which could not land in Kabul last night, was flown to the Taliban base at Kandahar in Afghanistan early this morning.
The freed passengers, three of them injured men and the rest women and children, flew back to India from Dubai, escorted by civil aviation minister Sharad Yadav. The body of Rupin Katyal, the 25-year-old newly wed, was also brought back. His wife, however, is still on the hostage plane. The passengers said there are five hijackers ? three Kashmiris, one Afghani and one Nepali ? armed with a grenade, rifle and khukris.
The hijackers made their first demand around 9 pm, 29 hours after they took control of the Kathmandu-Delhi Flight IC 814 in the skies above Lucknow. Taliban spokesman Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, who met two of the hijackers, said they had demanded the release of Maulana Masood Azhar, chief of the terrorist outfit Harkat-ul-Ansar, and some other Kashmiri militants jailed in India. Muttawakil said one of the hijackers was Ibrahim, brother of the incarcerated Harkat boss. Names of the other leaders who the hijackers want released have not been released to the government.
The Taliban have passed on the demand to the United Nations in New York and are demanding that the world body mediate with the hijackers.
Amid speculation that the flight could take off for Kabul either tonight or tomorrow, the Centre held firm ground, monitoring developments and keeping in touch with the Taliban civil aviation authorities. ??My first concern is the safety of the passengers and the crew on board the aircraft. We are doing everything possible to ensure they return home unharmed,?? Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said. ??My government will not bend before such a show of terror.?? Foreign minister Jaswant Singh said he expected ??developments to take shape tomorrow morning??.
The hijackers? demand indicates that the terrorists are drawing world attention to Kashmir, bringing it to the centrestage within six months of the Kargil war.
India began parleys with sympathetic friends in the West and maintained a link with the Taliban civil aviation department.
Earlier in the day, the Delhi air traffic control received a call from a person claiming to be a member of the Islamic Salvation Army, an unheard-of organisation. The caller demanded the release of three Lashkar-e-Toiba militants held in Indian prisons, of whom only one, Mushtaque Ahmed Zardar, is well known. The Centre ignored the demand.
The government refused to play hardball with the hijackers as it realised that an Entebbe-style commando operation had little chance of succeeding in hostile Taliban territory and could jeopardise the safety of the passengers.
The tragedy that struck the Gurgaon-based Katyal family jolted the government. Rupin and Rachna married three weeks ago and went to Kathmandu for their honeymoon. According to one of the freed passengers, Rupin was knifed to death for looking at the hijackers twice.
Reports trickling in from Kabul and Islamabad suggested that the toll could be higher. Kandahar airport staff, who reportedly entered the plane to serve food, saw more bodies. Some reports suggested five persons have been killed. But the government refused to accept the figure.
The plane, which could not land in Kabul or Kandahar yesterday for lack of night-landing facilities, spent five hours at the Al-minhat air base between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where the 26 passengers were offloaded.
The plane touched down at Kandahar around 8.30 am IST. Taliban troops surrounded the plane and refused to let anyone come out. The hijackers said they would not fly out of Afghanistan and warned they would crash the plane if it was refused landing permission in Kabul.
The Taliban regime put out statements insisting it had nothing to do with the hijacking and had permitted landing facilities on humanitarian grounds. Then followed a day-long dialogue between the Taliban administration and Indian authorities. By afternoon, it was apparent that the hijackers were talking with airport officials in Kandahar through the pilot.
Vajpayee chaired a meeting of the core group of ministers this morning. The group realised that the plane may be in for a long haul in Afghanistan and decided against taking any brash step in alien land.
The initial feeling gaining ground is that of a trap meticulously laid by the ostracised militia regime in Afghanistan. Its insistence that the United Nations should mediate in the hostage crisis is being seen as an attempt to involve the international body in the Kashmir dispute.
On the other hand, by staying out of the hijack stand-off, the Taliban is also trying to earn diplomatic brownie points from the West, particularly the US.
India is aware of this gameplan, but it is planning to ?wait and watch? for the moment without making any controversial comment. Delhi is in touch will key global players, including the US. Though reluctant to recognise the Taliban as the government in Kabul, India is talking with the ?authorities in Afghanistan?.
The Indian high commissioner in Islamabad, G. Parthasarathy, was also reported to be in touch with the Taliban ambassador and other top officials in Pakistan. The Indian government is also considering a proposal to send Parthasarathy, along with an official Indian delegation, to Kandahar to help in the negotiations.
Foreign minister Jaswant Singh said this evening that some important ?developments? on the hijacking were expected to take shape tomorrow.
India is being extremely careful about the statements its leaders are making as it does not want to give any excuse to the hijackers to harm any more passengers. The other reason for the guarded approach is to establish the identity of those who are pulling the strings from behind the hijackers.
On a question whether India had sought assistance from other countries to help resolve the issue, Singh said: ?An initiative has been taken by us and all have expressed their cooperation.? However, he ruled out any involvement of a third country in resolving the hijack episode.
India has not blamed Pakistan so far for the incident. But if the involvement of Harkat-ul Anzar is proved beyond doubt, questions will be raised whether Islamabad had any role.
The military rulers in Pakistan made it clear today that Indian commentators should refrain from making any adverse observations suggesting Pakistani involvement in the hijacking. The regime?s spokesman, Rashid Qureshi, had gone a step ahead in describing the hijacking incident as ?stage-managed? by India.
India appears to be waiting for a clear picture to emerge so that it can highlight to the rest of the world the role Pakistan has been playing over the past several years in encouraging cross-border terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir.
However, it remains to be seen how India deals with the situation after the Taliban?s demand to involve the UN. So far, it has categorically refused to involve either the UN or any other third party on Kashmir.
Since it involves the lives of civilians, India may not be averse to seeking the help of the UN. But, so far, it has not given any indication that it was willing to budge from its stated position that it will not strike a deal with the hijackers by releasing the Kashmiri militants.