The 160 hostages on the Indian Airlines Airbus, parked in Kandahar for over 40 hours, have not been allowed to step out. A United Nations delegation, which visited the Afghan militia base today, said the passengers had been provided food, water and blankets.
The hijackers, who spoke to the UN team led by Erick de Mul over the radio, released a diabetic passenger, Anil Khurana, as a ??goodwill gesture??. But Khurana refused to return home, saying he would stay at the airport in Kandahar until all the other hostages are released. His brother-in-law is among the captives who are going through one of the longest hijack ordeals in history.
The Taliban regime had asked the UN to intervene after the hijackers made their first demand yesterday: the release of Harkat-ul Ansar chief Masood Azhar, jailed in Jammu. But in an effort to step up heat on India, the Taliban warned it would ask the plane to leave Afghanistan if the government in Delhi did not send a delegation immediately to end the crisis. ??The Indian government is not taking any interest in the hijacking,?? said Taliban aviation minister Akhtar Manzoor.
India earlier sought Taliban permission to send two aircraft and a substitute pilot. But the Taliban said it could send one aircraft with negotiators.
Some reports from Kandahar said the plane had been refuelled and could take off for some other place. The engines were also running, but a Taliban official said the airport did not have the equipment to restart the jet if they were turned off.
Officials here brushed away the Taliban threat as a pressure tactic to force the pace of negotiations. Pointing out that no Afghan airport had night traffic facilities, the officials said the plane may have been refuelled to keep the passengers warm in the sub-zero temperature.
The plane, with curtains drawn across its windows, stands near a bombed-out control tower. An official at the Kandahar airport said there were no bodies on the aircraft. The toilets were cleaned today and the passengers given food and beverages.
With little information filtering through from Kandahar, relatives of the hostages pilloried the administration for not doing enough. The anger spilled over into the Cabinet, with several ministers, led by Mamata Banerjee, saying the government should have struck back at Amritsar airport. They believe a long-haul strategy will not work and urged the government to take definite action.
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has asked his Cabinet members to remain in Delhi. He has convened an all-party meeting tomorrow.
Foreign minister Jaswant Singh got in touch with his counterparts in the Permanent Five and other western nations and also spoke to several leaders in neighbouring countries. The move is intended at getting these countries to condemn the hijackers and isolate Pakistan and the Taliban.
Pointing the needle of suspicion towards Pakistan, Singh said information from Nepal suggested that the hijackers may have landed in Kathmandu on a Pakistan International Airlines flight. He said Pakistan had earlier demanded Azhar?s release.
Pakistan tonight alleged that the hijacking was ?manufactured? by India to ?malign? Islamabad.
Delhi is yet to take a decision on the hijackers? demand. ??It is difficult for me to answer this question at this juncture in a simple yes or no,?? Singh said. ??We are examining all options.?? He reiterated that the government?s priority was to ensure the safety of those still on the aircraft.
The Prime Minister has said India will not compromise by giving in to the hijackers. He also made it clear that talks with Taliban officials in Kandahar does not imply that Delhi is considering recognising the regime.
Amid the tough talk, Singh pointed out that Delhi does not intend closing any options. He added that the Taliban authorities had ??cooperated?? with the UN delegation and Indian officials.
Singh, however, clarified that the UN team did not visit Kandahar as an ??intermediary or to mediate?? between India and the hijackers.
The UN officials returned to Islamabad in the evening. Singh said India will now be in touch with its permanent representative at the UN headquarters in New York, Kamlesh Sharma.
De Mul is expected to submit a detailed report to his bosses in New York. Through Sharma, India would like to get more details of what the UN official has found out in Kandahar.
India is also making an effort to convince countries like the US that they must use their influence on Pakistan and, through them, the Taliban to force them to give up the hijack charade.
One anguished question melted into another as traumatised relatives of the hostages confronted the external affairs minister after barging into the Press Information Bureau where he was addressing a crowded media conference.
Chibber wanted to know what immediate action was being contemplated for the hostages? safe return and demanded to be kept informed of the decisions taken by the government.
A few blocks away, another group carrying placards kept vigil outside Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee?s Race Course Road house, awaiting his return from Ghaziabad. One of the placards read: ?Save the passengers.? And another: ?Release Masood?.
Vajpayee, who had taken a short break from the crisis-management talks to address a symposium on primary education, later met a delegation of the relatives and assured them that the government was doing its best to save the hostages.
Vajpayee explained to the relatives that there was no guarantee that after the release of one extremist, the hijackers would stop demanding freedom for more.
The relatives who stepped out of the Prime Minister?s house had mixed feelings.
?You see, we are all nationalists. We do not want the Prime Minister to give in cheaply to these kidnappers. But then, our hearts know no reason. We are also worried about our near ones on that plane,? said K.P. Anand, whose son-in-law Anil Khurana was freed in a ?goodwill gesture?. Anand?s another son-in-law, Sanjeev Sharma, is still in captivity.
Sanjeev Sharma?s mother stood weeping, while his sister-in-law Rina Dhaka, fashion designer, said: ?I am here, just like everybody else waiting to hear about my relatives.?
As Anand tried to reason, another in the vigil group said: ?He is making a political speech. He need not be so diplomatic.?
At the Press Information Bureau, Jaswant had to summon all his diplomatic skills to defuse the situation. The foreign minister assured the relatives that it was his duty to explain the present situation. He met the family members separately and assured them that the hostages? safety was the top-most priority of the government. The minister hugged Aman Nathani, six of whose family members are in captivity, saying: ?Everything will be fine. Nothing to worry.?
The government has appointed Vivek Katju as the spokesperson to brief the relatives twice everyday.
The relatives were, however, not satisfied with the assurances. ?Nothing can reassure us till the passengers reach the Delhi airport. We have not got any timeframe by when the hostages would be free. The minister is in touch with several governments to resolve this matter,? Chibber told reporters later.
Sriram Maggo, whose son is on board, said he would mobilise ?thousands of people? and take them to the President tomorrow.
The relatives reminded the minister that the V.P. Singh government had released jailed terrorists to obtain the release of Rubaiya Sayeed, daughter of the then home minister Mufti Muhammed Sayeed.
Hardeep Singh Bhalla, whose cousin Samant Barara is on the aircraft, felt that civil aviation minister Sharad Yadav?s trip on Saturday was futile. ?Why should the civil aviation minister go to Dubai when the plane had left? He should have gone when the plane was actually there to negotiate safe return.?
The nearly 100 tearful relatives and friends of the hostages who had assembled outside 7, Race Course Road, had to wait for a while before they could meet Vajpayee. ?We were told that the Prime Minister has gone to Ghaziabad,? said Bhalla.
?We have been treated very shabbily and when we asked for water, they kept a leaking cooler outside. Are we third-grade citizens of this country?? he asked.