Talks take off with Taliban nod
Nepalese key to gang-of-five door
Pilot?s coded alert on deaf ears
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Dec. 27 
In what seems to be the final countdown to the four-day hijack ordeal, India today struck an apparent friendship with the Taliban authorities in Afghanistan. Armed with their assurance of not allowing bloodshed on their soil, a team of Indian negotiators reached Kandahar after nightfall to start the hard bargain with the hijackers, who are demanding the release of jailed militant Masood Azhar.

The delegation, led by Vivek Katju, joint secretary in the foreign ministry, established radio contact with the hijackers and spoke to them for over an hour. The team held talks with Taliban officials earlier.

This morning, the government had despatched an official from its high commission in Islamabad to Kandahar to get in touch with the hijackers.

An upbeat Indian government waited with optimism in Delhi as the negotiators accepted Taliban hospitality. As further reassurance to the delegation, armed Taliban securitymen surrounded the hijacked Airbus that is sitting in Kandahar for the past three days with the 160 hostages.

Foreign minister Jaswant Singh praised the Taliban for cooperating with the Indian officials in dealing with the situation. ??At present, we have been receiving all cooperation from the Taliban and I?m banking on their cooperation in future,?? Singh said.

The Taliban authorities said they were prepared to storm the plane if any hostage was killed. ??We won?t allow any gruesome action on Afghan soil,?? said Taliban spokesman Rehmatullah Aga. ??We warned the hijackers that if they kill anyone, we are going to mete out similar treatment to them.??

But India has not closed the option of stepping up diplomatic pressure by mobilising world opinion against the hijackers. India is trying to convince diplomats from Western countries and other key global powers to reach Kandahar and make the hijackers see reason.

Relatives of trapped passengers became even more vocal and embarrassed the government by describing the Union Cabinet as ??imbecile and incapable of taking tough decisions??. They clashed with civil aviation officials at Centaur Hotel, slapped policemen outside the Prime Minister?s residence and then laid siege to 7 Race Course Road by lying on the road and blocking traffic.

Around 9 this morning, the government received a fax from the Taliban air traffic control, saying the hijackers had set a deadline for 2 pm to meet their demand. If Azhar is not released by then, the hostages would be killed. But the hijackers suspended the demand after their radio conversation with A.R. Ghanshyam, commercial counsellor in the high commission in Islamabad. Ghanshyam told them that a delegation from India was on its way to Kandahar. Commando troops were deployed around the hijacked plane as the initial deadline approached but they were removed later. Red Cross ambulances had also raced to the airport after the threat was issued.

The Airbus A-320 aircraft, which took off carrying the negotiators around 3.35 pm, returned to the Indira Gandhi International Airport within minutes as it developed a ??technical snag??. Officials later said the plane?s air brakes had failed.

An alternative aircraft was provided and the negotiators reached Kandahar around 6.30 pm, nearly three hours behind schedule, to start the hard bargain with the hijackers.

The government held discussions with the Opposition parties in the morning to apprise them of steps taken and the options before it to end the crisis. The Opposition parties left the hard decisions for the Centre to take, saying that ??in the fast-developing situation, it was best that the government took whatever decision it feels necessary to deal with it??.

The Prime Minister also chaired two Cabinet meetings during the day to take stock of the situation.

The foreign minister told reporters that the government was constantly monitoring the situation and the fast-paced developments. ??The situation is changing rapidly for the government to decide. But whatever it decides, the safety of the passengers and the interest of the nation will have to be matched and taken care of,?? Singh said.

The government is faced with a delicate situation. On the one hand it is under severe pressure from the relatives of the hijackers to release the dreaded terrorist. On the other, the government is trying to ensure that the country does not compromise its national security by bowing to the hijackers.

Conditions inside the plane have been deteriorating for the 160 hostages trapped inside for the past three days. The Taliban delivered food to passengers and the staff reported that ??the air in the plane is very smells like people have been sick,?? said a civil aviation official.

The airport lies in the middle of a sweeping plain, surrounded by fields and littered with landmines. Villagers living nearby wander near the runway. The Soviets used the airport as one of their largest bases.

Suspected international terrorist Osama bin Laden, who has taken refuge in Afghanistan, sent a fax message to news agencies in Pakistan, denying any role in the hijack. ??Osama has no link. Mujahideen are not involved in the hijacking,?? said the fax.    

New Delhi, Dec. 2 
Gopal Tamrakar, the Nepali national identified by investigators as one of the six hijackers, is a smuggler and was an associate of slain Nepali minister Mirza Dilshad Beg who was known to have had links with the ISI.

Tamrakar may have procured the boarding passes for the five other hijackers who have been identified as S.A. Qazi, Sayyed Mushtaq, Ahmed Sheikh and Ibrahim Mistri from Pakistan, and one Afghan.

Barring the Afghan national, whose identity is not yet known, names of the others appear in the passenger manifest of IC 814. Serially, Sheikh is third on the list, Mistri is 85th, Tamrakar is 147th and Qazi is 163rd.

A source in an Indian security agency said Tamrakar?s elder brother owns several foreign goods shops at Kathmandu?s Tribhuvan International airport.

Investigators believe Tamrakar made the arrangements to smuggle in the five hijackers from the arrival enclosure of the airport to the departure lounge after the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight PK-804 landed on Friday morning.

The source believes that this would have ensured that the foreign nationals did not get their passports stamped at the immigration counter. With fake identity documents, they could have passed off as Indian nationals who do not require passports in Nepal.

Since Tamrakar?s brother has been running shops at the airport for several years, he had contacts among Nepali officials ?vulnerable? to inducements. These contacts were utilised to bypass security norms that should have been followed by airport authorities while checking in transit passengers.

Tamrakar, investigators believe, may have procured the tickets for the hijackers individually and then produced them together at the Indian Airlines counter to get the six boarding passes. The security agencies are now checking if any heavy baggage had been booked against the names of the six.

The Tamrakar brothers were close confidants of Mirza Dilshad Beg, the powerful Nepal minister who was shot dead by the Chhota Rajan gang in 1997 after the ganster fell out with Dawood Ibrahim. Beg, who was known to be close to Dawood and had even acted as his pointsman in Nepal, used to push in arms, ammunition and narcotics through the porous Indo-Nepal border into Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and western India.

According to security officials, Pakistan?s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) used Beg?s underworld network to smuggle its agents and saboteurs into India.

Senior Indian officials said Tamrakar?s criminal background and his links with Beg have prompted them to explore whether the Indian Airlines aircraft was hijacked by Dawood?s men with the complicity of Pakistani intelligence.

Even Mistri, whose name is more Indian than Pakistani, could be a member of Dawood?s gang. Now suspected to be in Karachi, the underworld don enjoys tremendous clout among Pakistani officialdom.    

New Delhi, Dec. 27 
Capt. Devi Sharan, commander of the hijacked Airbus, had passed on a coded message to Delhi, indicating he would try and land at Amritsar though he was being asked to cross the border, top civil aviation ministry officials said.

After Lahore refused landing rights, the pilot did manage to convince the hijackers that he had to touch down in Amritsar as the plane was running out of fuel. By landing on Indian territory, he gave the government time which could have been used to negotiate and take definite action.

But emergency meetings were delayed and orders were not passed on. Crucial minutes were wasted trying to locate commando forces.

Stung by allegations that it messed up in Amritsar, the government today ordered an inquiry into what happened at the airport on Friday. It has asked for a minute-by-minute report of the developments on that day.

Sharan had first alerted air traffic controllers of the hijack at 4.56 pm. According to procedure, the crisis management group, headed by the Cabinet secretary and comprising secretaries from the Prime Minister?s Office, ministries of external affairs, defence and civil aviation and home and heads of the Intelligence Bureau and RAW, should have immediately held a teleconference on their secure hotlines. But the panel has never met before as a group, not even for mock sessions.

Instructions could have been passed on directly or through the central committee. The panel, which has as members the director-general of civil aviation, joint secretaries from the ministries for external affairs, civil aviation and home and officers from the three services, acts both as a support thinktank for the crisis management group and as its executive arm.

The crisis team, instead, convened a formal meeting which began at 5.30 pm. But it did not take any firm decision.

Airports in the region, including the one at Amritsar, were not put on high alert or told to be ready for dealing with the hijackers.

The Amritsar airport committee, comprising the station head, senior police, administration and army officials, too, had never met before.

Few remembered the procedures laid down in the booklet prepared in 1990 for handling such situations.

Precious minutes ticked away as the crisis management group scoured for a National Security Guard commando unit in the region to storm the plane. A group was located at Batala and asked to proceed towards Amritsar.

But by the time the commandos reached Raja Sansi airport, the hijackers had sniffed a rat and forced Sharan to take off.

A former member of the central committee told The Telegraph that the ??Amritsar airport committee had failed totally??. The committee, according to the anti-hijacking booklet, should have ordered the aircraft to a remote corner of the airport to ensure that even if it was attacked by commandos, other planes would not be hit.

The airport officials should have unobtrusively tried to block the runway of the hijacked plane to prevent it from taking off suddenly as this one did.

After blocking the plane?s path, the officials ought to have established direct radio contact with the hijackers to try and wear them out psychologically.

The army, which has a large cantonment on the outskirts of Amritsar, was neither called nor did it volunteer to help as it should have since the station commander is a member of the airport committee.    

Temperature: Maximum: 27.6?C (+1) Minimum: 15.9?C (+2) RAINFALL: Nil Relative humidity: Maximum: 96%, Minimum: 43% Today: The weatherman says the sky will remain mainly clear. Not much change likely in night temperature Sunset: 4.55 pm Sunrise: 6.21 am    

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