Fallout from Flight 814

  • Share
  • Read Later
Confined to an Indian prison cell, Maulana Masood Azhar had to watch his words. It is against the tenets of our religion to bargain over the lives of innocents, he reportedly told one of his jailers when informed that five masked gunmen had hijacked an Indian Airlines jet on Christmas Eve and demanded his release. The hostages should be released unconditionally. After being freed, however, Azhar loosened his tongue. Five days after New Delhi exchanged Azhar and two other alleged terrorists for the 155 passengers and crew on board Flight 814, the 31-year-old militant Islamic leader resurfaced in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, breathing fire. Don't hail me. Don't congratulate me over my release. Don't raise slogans for me, he told a crowd of several thousand supporters, many of them armed, who had gathered in front of a Muslim seminary. Instead, present me with a garland of shoes, blacken my face, because India is yet to be destroyed. Indian negotiators may have thought they closed the book on the hijacking on Dec. 31, when all the hostages were freed at the airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan. But in the week since, the repercussions of the deal have begun to echo deafeningly across South Asia. I have come here because this is my duty, to tell you that Muslims should not rest in peace until we have destroyed America and India, Azhar exhorted the Karachi crowd. In Kashmir itself, Muslim militants launched at least two attacks on Indian security installations, killing four soldiers, while a land mine planted in a Srinagar market killed 15 bystanders. In Pakistan-held Kashmir, five civilians were killed by Indian shells. As charges and countercharges were also lobbed across the border, the only thing certain was that the two sides were nowhere near resolving the issue at the center of all the violence: the fate of Kashmir.

The fallout began to spread almost as soon as the hostages were released in Kandahar. According to Azhar, the five hijackers and three militants--with an unarmed member of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia as hostage--drove out of Kandahar for about 30 minutes. Then the hijackers, whom he says had not taken off their masks, freed the Taliban official and set off on their own. Azhar and the others--Kashmiri militant Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Ahmed Umar Saeed Sheikh, a Pakistani-born British citizen--crossed into Pakistan together. Azhar made his way to Karachi and ultimately to his hometown of Bahawalpur. Zargar was reported to have returned to a hero's welcome in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. By week's end Sheikh had yet to surface.
Their freedom mocks the government of Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, which has been criticized by everyone from Jane's Defence Weekly to its own political mentors for striking a deal with the hijackers. Not surprisingly, Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist team has responded by ratcheting up accusations against India's neighbor. Pakistan is neck-deep in this dirty game of hijacking, declared India's hawkish Home Minister L.K. Advani. He bases his case on the arrests of four Bombay residents (including two Pakistani citizens), whom he claims had helped the hijackers prepare for their mission. By interrogating the four, authorities were supposedly able to identify the hijackers, whose pictures were promptly plastered across the front pages of India's major dailies. All five named, including Azhar's brother, Ibrahim Athar, are Pakistani nationals. Azhar denies that his brother was one of the hijackers, says he never saw their faces and contends that they identified themselves as Indian citizens from Kashmir.

Islamabad scoffs at charges that it was in any way involved, and Advani could point to no direct link between the Pakistani government and the hijackers. But the rhetoric emanating from Pakistan has been equally florid--and the angry denials don't fully pass the plausibility test. When the Taliban allowed the hijackers their freedom on New Year's Eve, they gave them 10 hours to get off Afghan soil. The only country they could have realistically reached in that time was Pakistan. Border guards at Quetta, the Pakistani city nearest to Kandahar, told reporters they had been placed on alert--yet they also conceded they had no idea who or what they were supposed to be looking for. (In Pakistan's view, in any case, the hijackers are the only political hot potatoes, and authorities have vowed to arrest them if they are found in Pakistan. Azhar was allowed openly into the country, since Islamabad says he has broken no Pakistani laws.)

At the very least, Pakistan has exposed itself to criticism for tolerating Islamic militia groups like Lashkar-i-Tayyaba and Azhar's Harkat ul-Mujahideen, which has been listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. These groups have become so autonomous that the government, despite its best efforts, has not been able to exercise very tight control over their activities, says Rifaat Hussain, chairman of defense studies at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University. Much of the Pakistani public supports Kashmir separatism, and any crackdown on militants would be political suicide. But allowing free rein to Azhar could prove even more dangerous to the regime of General Pervez Musharraf, who overthrew an elected Prime Minister in October. Thus far the U.S. has rejected India's calls to brand Pakistan a terrorist state. But State Department spokesman James Rubin called Azhar's remarks in Karachi deplorable and unacceptable and warned that Washington would hold Pakistani officials responsible for any activities of his that threatened the safety of Americans.

Azhar himself recognizes the need for circumspection. The media coverage of this hijacking put a lot of pressure on the [Pakistani] government, and it wants us to keep a low profile, he told Time in Karachi last week. Indian officials naturally worry that the inspirational orator could fan the flames, already hot, of the separatist insurgency in Kashmir. But even if he doesn't make things worse, the depth of mistrust and resentment that has built up in Delhi and Islamabad means things are not likely to get cooler any time soon.