Taliban tests Delhi nerves
Race to shorten list of 36
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New Delhi, Dec. 30 
With the Taliban Shura setting a two-day deadline to end the standoff and making it clear it will not allow foreign troops to storm the aircraft, India appeared to be under intense pressure to free some of the 36 militants whose release has been demanded by the hijackers.

Delhi has so far not blinked in this psychological dual and refused to give in to the hijackers.

Armed Taliban soldiers surrounded the trapped Indian Airlines Airbus parked at Kandahar airport with 160 hostages as the three-day negotiations between Indian officials and the hijackers entered a crucial phase.

Read together with the Shura?s decision, the surrounding of the aircraft by the Taliban militia spells gloom for India. It rules out the possibility of an armed action by Indian commandos.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee met the President for half-an-hour this evening and apprised him of the developments and options being explored by the government.

A 25-year-old hostage, S. Brara, was released by the captors and taken to a local hospital for medical attention after he complained of acute stomach pain. A Taliban car drove up to the aircraft, collected the sick man and transported him to the hospital outside the airport. However, after about 90 minutes he was escorted back to the plane.

The Taliban has apparently warned the hijackers that they would be held responsible if any passenger dies, regardless of cause. ??The Taliban told the hijackers that if anyone dies as a result of sickness or violence, it would hold them responsible and perhaps that is why they released this passenger,?? Indian diplomat A.R. Ghanshyam told AP in Kandahar.

As speculation spread that India could agree to the terms, government officials here began citing examples of Israel and the US, which in the past had yielded to hijackers? demands.

One diplomatic hurdle before India is where to release the militants. The Taliban has made it clear it will not accept any of the Kashmiri militants, if and when, they are released by Delhi. It has also said that the hijackers will not be given asylum in Afghanistan. This, perhaps, will come in handy as a major bargaining point for the Indian negotiators.

Left with little choice to come out of the present crisis unscathed, the Indians have also started pursuing the option of holding on to their ground by not surrendering to the hijackers and calling off the Taliban?s bluff by testing their patience beyond the two-day deadline. The Taliban has said it will force the Indian Airlines aircraft to leave its soil if the standoff is not broken within 48 hours.

Some Indian officials say the Taliban, which had willingly been playing a role more than that of an honest broker, was doing so to get international acceptance as a responsible state, an image it desperately needs. These officials said it would be interesting to see the Taliban reaction if the Indians stick to their ground by not agreeing to the hijackers? demand and makes it clear to the militia regime that they were not averse to letting the aircraft fly out of Kandahar.

The Taliban could be in a dilemma then: it has to risk frittering away a change of image or reconcile to the fact that for the Kashmir cause, it will continue to face international isolation.

Efforts to end the crisis received a jolt last night but the talks were back on rails this morning. ??Negotiations are now extremely delicately poised,?? foreign minister Jaswant Singh told reporters after a 90-minute Cabinet meeting chaired by the Prime Minister in South Block this evening. ??Resumption of the dialogue itself is a positive sign,?? he added.

Chief negotiator Vivek Katju said as much. ??We are at a very sensitive stage. These are very delicate issues,?? he said.

Singh pointed out that the Indian negotiating team held parleys with the hijackers till 2 am this morning. ??But it came to a situation of impasse. There were some apprehensions about no further resumption of negotiations,?? he said.

Subsequently, additional security measures were taken by the Taliban, including replacing airport security staff besides stationing a tank and multi-barrel rocket launchers at the airfield, agency reports said.

Singh denied reports that another Indian delegation was sent to Kandahar today or that Delhi had agreed to release some of the jailed militants.    

New Delhi, Dec. 30 
The government has told its team in Kandahar not to make any commitment to the hijackers on the release of 36 militants as the demand was far from a ??negotiating range??.

Sources said the leadership here had instructed the seven-member team, which is conducting the carefully-worded dis- cussions with the six hijackers, to arrive at a more realistic term for negotiations to actually begin.

The government issued the order after the air pirates dropped two demands but refused to relent on the release of jailed militants.

Sources said the hard bargaining had just begun with the government?s efforts to scale down the ??unacceptable?? and ??fantastic?? demand for the release of 36 terrorists, including Harkat general secretary Masood Azhar.

The officials have been asked to strike a deal with the hijackers and convince them that an appropriate ??negotiating range?? could be considered if they pruned their list to around 15 militants.

??There is nothing to be read into this proposal,?? a senior official said, adding that ??the government?s effort is to start negotiations ??if and when?? the hijackers accept a ??mutually agreeable?? range.

The negotiators are treading cautiously lest the hijackers ??take it for granted?? that India is interested in the swap. Each official is busy convincing the captors that a deal is possible, but the government?s stand indicates it will not give in easily before making a commitment.

The Harkat had made a similar demand after its offshoot, Al-Faran, kidnapped six foreign tourists from Pahalgam in 1995. Through 1995-1997 ? during which a Norwegian tourist was killed ? the outfit scaled down its demand from 35 to 20 militants. With the government refusing to yield, the militants further brought down the number to five. At the end ? by which time the fate of the tourists was believed to have been sealed ? the government did not release a single terrorist.

It is unclear whether the same tactic would be employed at a time when the hijackers are holding so many hostages.

Kandahar is the hub of Taliban territory and the air pirates have influential, like-minded people around them. The negotiators are wary of the presence of the militia, though they are holding one-to-one talks with the hijackers.

The presence of Taliban commandos, tanks and anti-aircraft guns in and around the airport has raised speculation here that the militia is sending signals to the government to break the standoff as soon as possible.

But inputs received from Kandahar also suggest that the security arrangements may be intended to preempt any Indian commando action.

Militants? status report

The Jammu and Kashmir authorities today sent a detailed report to the Union government on the present status, place of detention and dossiers on the 36 militants currently lodged in various jails in the state and whose release has been demanded by the hijackers. Most of them are from Pakistan.    

Temperature: Maximum: 25.9?C (-1) Minimum: 16.1?C (+2l) RAINFALL: Nil Relative humidity: Maximum: 90%, Minimum: 50% Today: Mainly clear sky. Not much change in night temperature. Sunrise: 4.57 am Sunset: 6.22 pm    

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