Caring Taliban puzzles Delhi
Deadly dossier on wanted trio
Knives, pistols and bluff
Lashkar leader shot dead
Light and banter keep panic at bay
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Dec. 29 
With prodding from the Taliban, the hijackers today dropped two demands for $200 million ransom and the body of a slain Harkat-ul Ansar leader.

The air pirates have, however, refused to budge on the release of 36 jailed terrorists, including Harkat chief Masood Azhar: their price for the freedom of the 160 passengers trapped in Kandahar.

The hijackers pruned their list of demands during the fourth round of talks with Indian negotiators.

The Taliban Shura ? the highest decision-making body ? convinced the hijackers to drop the ransom demand by telling them that it was against Islam, as was exhuming a body and removing it from its burial ground.

Though the changes in the demand list have given India some leeway, Taliban?s extended role, ? which now seems more than that of an honest broker ? raises doubts about the militia?s actual intentions.

The Taliban said today its patience was running thin and it would not allow the aircraft to remain indefinitely in Afghanistan.

??If the two sides are unable to solve their problems soon, the Taliban will force the hijackers to leave Afghanistan,?? foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil said. But he did not set a deadline.

With limited options left before it, the government may sooner or later have to consider whether it can rally the nation behind it through hard-bargain release of some of the militants in exchange for the hostages.

India communicated its decision to the hijackers? increased demands this morning. After the list was pruned, parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan said: ??We are looking at the demand only in its totality.??

This indicates that the government is studying various options and to what extent it can go to meet the demand.

Foreign minister Jaswant Singh, however, refused to give any details. ??Given the sensitive nature of the issue, it is scarcely possible for me to conduct negotiations through the media. It is not in the interest of the hostages,?? he said.

Singh reiterated that the Taliban had ??cooperated?? in the negotiations, but added that as part of its diplomatic efforts, India had sought help from ??all countries?? which have relations with the Afghan militia to ??use their good offices?? to bring an ??early termination?? to the crisis.

Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are the three nations which recognise the Taliban. But there are others like Israel which have been interacting with the Taliban.

Agency reports said India?s ambassador to the UAE, K.C. Singh, handed over a letter from Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to authorities in Abu Dhabi. The Indian envoy at the United Nations is in touch with his counterparts from different nations.

Though several countries, including those of the Permanent Five, have issued statements condemning the hijack, India has not been able to get sufficient international pressure. UN secretary-general Kofi Annan is yet to make any statement on the issue.

The US has assured all cooperation to India, which implies that Washington will try and convince Islamabad to play an active role in ending the standoff.

But in a significant development, agencies quoted President Bill Clinton as describing Kashmir as ??perhaps the most dangerous issue in the world now??.

Though the foreign minister said he would try to ascertain exactly when Clinton made the statement, its timing may have embarrassed the Indian leadership to some extent, especially at a time when it being blackmailed by the hijackers to release 36 Kashmiri militants.

However, it can also be seen as Washington?s way of giving the leeway required to rope in Islamabad?s active support.

In a statement to BBC, Pakistan high commissioner in London Akbar S. Ahmed said: ??Pakistan is deeply concerned over the increasing tense situation in Kandahar and expresses full sympathy with the sad plight of the hostages.??

But on the other hand, Pakistan is also trying to make a loud pitch for India to agree to the hijackers terms to ensure the safety of the passengers.

Others, too, have made similar suggestions. The UN coordinator for Afghanistan, Erick de Mul, warned of a possible violent end to the crisis if the standoff continued.

Canada?s foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, was also reported to have urged the negotiators to follow a safety-first policy, even if it means agreeing to the hijackers.

??You hate to give to terrorism because they are using intimidation tactics to gain their ends for political reasons and for monetary reasons,?? Axworthy said. ??But ultimately, the bottom line has to be the safety and security of the people.?? A Canadian woman is among the hostages.

The options before India are few. Since the aircraft is in Kandahar, it cannot plan a commando strike unless it is actively supported by the Taliban.

Though the militia has so far cooperated with the negotiators, it is unlikely it will allow armed action by India on its soil. The regime in Kabul, which is yet to get international recognition, is desperate for legitimacy.

India can help by making a statement on its role in resolving the present crisis.

But it is difficult to see how the Taliban can gift India outright victory in return. The likely scenario is for the Taliban to get the hijackers to agree to prune the list of militants they want freed and persuade to play ball.    

New Delhi, Dec. 29 
Three of the 35 jailed Harkat-ul Ansar militants whose release has been demanded by the hijackers are described in intelligence dossiers as hardcore with a lot of blood on their hands. They had planned a series of strikes, including blowing up the Taj Mahal and kidnapping Kapil Dev.

According to information available with The Telegraph, the terrorists are: Nasullah Manzoor Langaryal, Mohammad Aleem Baluch alias Zarra alias Ibrahim and Abdul Matin alias Mosaib. All three are from Pakistan.

Nasullah Manzoor Langaryal: Son of Mohammad Safi Langaryal, a resident of Langaryal in Pakistan Punjab, Nasullah was a deputy commander of Harkat-ul Jehad-e-Islami, the earlier avatar of the Harkat-ul Ansar. He was arrested by Indian security forces on November 19, 1993. Described as a highly motivated and committed fundamentalist militant, Nasullah participated in the jihad against Russian forces in Afghanistan from 1983 to early 1992 when he was ??directed?? to enter Kashmir.

Nasullah infiltrated in December 1992 through Lipa Valley and joined the Harkat cadre operating from Kapran in Anantnag. In his first operation in June 1993 at Dessa in Doda district, his group killed 10 BSF personnel and six civilians. BSF weapons were snatched and one jawan was abducted and subsequently killed.

Mohammad Aleem Baluch: Security agency files say Baluch was ??self-motivated enough?? to join the Harkat. He underwent two months? specialised training in guerrilla warfare and in handling arms and explosives like RDX and Semtex at the Harkat training camp in Kotli in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. He infiltrated along with nine foreign mercenaries through Drass sub-sector in Kargil. Arrested on November 8, 1993.

Abdul Matin: A resident of Mirpur in Sukr district, the lanky militant was the Harkat deputy district commander when he was arrested on May 5, 1997. He took arms training and sneaked into Kashmir in September 1984. Matin, also known as Mosaib, toured different cities, including Delhi, Calcutta, Deoband, Muzzafarpur, Agra, Meerut and Shimla between November 1986 and January 1987.

During interrogation, he revealed Pakistan?s plan to push Taliban men into the valley. Matin was responsible for the explosions in a Jaipur stadium on Republic Day, 1996, the Modi Nagar (Uttar Pradesh) blast in February 1996 and the killing of a Swedish tourist in Agra in January 1996.

He also disclosed Harkat plans to blow up the Taj Mahal and abduct Kapil Dev. Matin also disclosed the three types of training received by Harkat activists, including toushishiya (basic 40-day lesson) in handling small arms.    

New Delhi, Dec. 29 
The confusion over the weapons in the possession of the hijackers has ended with the government verifying that they were armed only with knives and pistols, and not AK-47 rifles or grenades as was perceived before.

Passengers released on Saturday had told officials the hijackers did not possess any assault rifles. They only had pistols, knives and something which looked like a grenade from a distance and which the hijackers exhibited often.

The information has reportedly now been confirmed by one of the negotiators, whose specific mission in Kandahar was to get hold of these facts.

It is clear that the pilot had been forced at gunpoint to convey to the Amritsar control tower on Friday that the hijackers had AK-47 rifles on board.

By hesitating to act in Amritsar, where the hijacked plane was parked for 45 precious minutes, the authorities allowed themselves to be hoodwinked by a group of modestly-armed air bandits.

After Lahore refused landing rights, the pilot had convinced the hijackers to allow the plane to touch down in Amritsar for refuelling. By landing on Indian territory, he gave the government time which could have been used to take definite action. But the opportunity was frittered away.

Stung by criticism of its inaction, government sources today claimed it had directed the authorities in Amritsar to immobilise the hijacked plane, adds PTI. An oil tanker was sent with personnel instructed to deflate the tyres of the aircraft which, however, turned around and took off without refuelling.

Sources said the cabinet secretary and principal secretary to the Prime Minister had told senior police officers in Amritsar the plane should not be allowed to go without the permission of the crisis management group.

The sources added that the National Security Guard was ordered to rush commandos to Amritsar. However, the flying time from Delhi to Amritsar is 50 minutes and they could not have reached the airport in time.    

Srinagar, Dec. 29 
Stung by the blast at its hub, the Special Operations Group today mounted an counter-assault and gunned down the most wanted militant in the valley, Lashkar-e-Toiba chief Abu Muawiah.

But the militants stepped up their attack and again fired at the heavily-guarded headquarters, minutes before chief minister Farooq Abdullah arrived to inspect the damage caused by two days of fighting. Nobody died in the attack.

Police director-general Gurbachan Jagat said the special force received information early in the morning that Muawiah had been spotted near Srinagar. The group, accompanied by the Border Security Force, swung into action and carried out a lightning raid on the Lashkar hideout at Shankarpura, on the outskirts of Srinagar. Muawiah, the outfit?s operations chief for Kashmir, was shot dead.

Jagat said Muawiah had been operating in the valley since 1992 and was behind several killings. He had recently masterminded the attack on the Badami Bagh Cantonment, headquarters of 15 Corps. ??He is a Pakistani national and had headed the Lashkar-e-Toiba for a long time and masterminded assaults on the security forces,?? he said.

The police chief, however, admitted that the attack on the headquarters of the special operations group was a serious setback.

??In a war, such things do take place. But we will hit back soon,?? he said.    

New Delhi, Dec. 29 
Power returned to the trapped Airbus, lighting a flicker of hope for the hostages who spent a harrowing 24 hours in the stifling interiors.

The two doctors who were allowed to enter the aircraft late last night said the passengers were ??exhausted, but fine and doing okay??.

They added that the captives were making best use of their ??imprisoned condition?? and had not entirely lost heart. The doctors assured the government there was no reason to be overly worried as long as the passengers did not give in to despair.

The government claimed that some hostages were allowed to step out on the tarmac and take a walk. The hijackers are also believed to have lifted the restriction on seating and permitted husbands to sit with their wives and children.

??The atmosphere inside the plane was relaxed and free of tension,?? Kandahar airport manager Haji Rehmatullah told AFP. He went aboard overnight with three Afghan workers who removed trash from the aircraft.

Rehmatullah said he saw five hijackers. They spoke in Urdu and wore shirts and trousers. Two terrorists were inside the cockpit while three others, armed with pistols and hand grenades, watched the hostages, he added.

??The hijackers were sharing jokes with the pilots,?? Rehmatullah said. ??I saw no casualties.??

Taliban airport staff Hamidullah said the floor of the plane was littered with waste and there was a powerful stench from the toilets. But, he added, ??there was no panic among the passengers??. Some played cards and chess while others read. The children were asleep, but most adults were awake.

But one worrying factor is that many passengers suffer from ailments which require specialised treatment and specific medicines.

Some are heart patients, a few suffer from hypertension, a teenager is afflicted with a kidney disease, an Australian is epileptic and a number of others have high blood-sugar counts.

For example Sanjeev Kapoor, a 14-year-old boy on the plane with his father, suffers from urinary problems. His family in Kirti Nagar is worried if he has been taking his medicines regularly. Sanjeev had taken a week?s dose to Kathmandu.

While sending the doctors, the government did not speak to the relatives for details on individual ailments. As a result, the medicines that have been carried to Kandahar are ??general??.

The silver lining is that the Red Cross has set up a camp close to the airport and is willing to tend to any health problem. Though its volunteers can step in only when asked to, they have adequate medicines and, in case of complications, the Indian doctors can ask for help. Reports suggested that the Red Cross also had access to pharmaceutical retail outlets, both in Kandahar and in Kabul.

The relatives are also worried about the food being supplied by the Taliban. The rice that has been provided is cooked in Afghani style, with lots of meat. A large number of passengers are strictly vegetarian. The government is unaware if any arrangement has been made for them.    

Temperature: Maximum: 25.8?C (-1) Minimum: 15.5?C (+1) RAINFALL: Nil Relative humidity: Maximum: 96%, Minimum: 49% Today: Mainly clear sky. Not much change in night temperature. Possibility of mist in the morning. Sunrise: 6.22 am Sunset: 4.56 pm    

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