A Risky Precedent

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It's hard to imagine a fate worse than being trapped inside a fetid, hijacked plane with grenades on board, a Stinger missile pointed at the aircraft and commandos prepared to storm in. Yet for the passengers and crew of Indian Airlines Flight 814, hijacked out of Kathmandu just before Christmas, New Year's Eve brought almost inconceivable good fortune. After one week on the plane, in which they endured a terrifying hop around the subcontinent and the Middle East, the murder of one passenger and countless lectures on Islam from their fanatical captors, the hostages suddenly found themselves free. The terrorists left the plane and were whisked away in several vehicles. The remaining 155 passengers clambered down to see an orange sun setting behind the hills around Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. Before midnight, they were back in New Delhi, their original destination, reunited with loved ones. We've returned home from death, said Ashok Chawla, a New Delhi businessman.The reversal of fortune for Chawla and his fellow hostages came at a price: India capitulated to terrorists, yielding to the hijackers not only their main demand--the release of a jailed Islamic militant--but offering up two other terrorists as well. Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh flew to Kandahar on New Year's Eve to deliver the three freed men to the hijackers. (Afghanistan's Taliban government then gave the terrorists and their three prizes 10 hours to leave Afghan soil.) Singh accompanied the weary passengers back to New Delhi, where he announced, with an impressively straight face: Our fight against terrorism will continue relentlessly.
Maybe that was meant as a New Year's resolution, like a vow to lose weight--but it came after a large indulgence in a region, South Asia, that has supplanted the Middle East as the world's terrorism capital. (Indian Airlines, the state-owned domestic carrier, is apparently the most hijacked airline on the planet, with 11 abductions since 1971.) The central issue motivating terrorist attacks is the tussle between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. In this case, the government of Atal Behari Vajpayee chose to act to save the passengers of Flight 814. The Indian Prime Minister apparently was convinced that the hijackers would willingly blow up the plane. (Passengers say they, too, expected such an outcome. Some said the hijackers also contemplated crashing the plane deliberately into the mountains surrounding Kandahar.) But Vajpayee's concessions sent an unambiguous signal that terrorism works on the subcontinent. Says political analyst Balveer Arora: This is a serious setback to India's efforts at fighting militancy in Kashmir.

The tale of Flight 814 was full of amazing twists and turns, both literal and geopolitical. New Delhi suspects the hijackers were members of Harkat ul-Mujahideen, Islamic militants working to liberate Kashmir from Indian rule. (In the past the group was known as Harkat ul-Ansar, but changed its name after the U.S. State Department branded it a terrorist outfit.) Although the group has denied involvement in the incident, one of the hijackers' demands was the release of its general-secretary, Maulana Masood Azhar. A stout teacher-turned-activist, Azhar was arrested on Indian territory in 1994 and was being detained on charges of using a fake Portuguese passport and organizing a jail-break. Azhar's group had tried three times previously to get him released by kidnapping Western hostages. (Some got away unscathed, although a Norwegian man was beheaded in 1995, and four of his fellow hostages have never been found.) On Christmas Eve, five men armed with knives, grenades and pistols evaded the porous security of Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport, boarded Flight 814 and, about 40 minutes after takeoff, took control of the plane.

Then came a dramatic search for a safe haven. Pakistan refused to allow the plane to land, so it touched down in the Indian city of Amritsar, where authorities tried to detain it. The hijackers got wise and took off with about 20 minutes of fuel, ahead of a planeload of Indian commandos sent to storm the aircraft. With a nearly empty tank, the plane landed on the darkened runway of Lahore airport--the pilot had considered setting down on an adjacent, illuminated road--and was given enough fuel to fly to a military base in Dubai. At that stop, the hijackers swapped 26 passengers for more fuel. (They also released the body of Rupin Katyal, 25, who was stabbed to death en route to Dubai for defying the hijackers' orders not to look at them.) Time has learned that Dubai had positioned its own commandos to storm the plane, but the pilots were unable to veer the plane off the runway, as instructed by the airport authorities, because two armed hijackers were sitting in the cockpit.

The plane doubled back to Kandahar, where the terrorists no doubt expected a warm reception. Harkat ul-Mujahideen is well known to Afghanistan's ruling Taliban authority, having fought on its side in its civil war against warlord Ahmed Shah Masood. But for the Taliban, Flight 814 represented a much greater opportunity dropping from the sky: to show its civilized side to a world community that has often been critical, in particular over the Taliban's treatment of women. We already have a bad image, said Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's leader. We don't want to make it worse by approving the hijacking of a plane with innocent passengers.

The Taliban allowed the plane to land, then set itself up as a peaceful mediator. It rejected asylum for the hijackers, brought in United Nations officials and, after foot-dragging by New Delhi, put the hijackers in contact with India. Early in the week, they allowed an Indian plane carrying seven mediators--and, secretly, a squad of commandos--to land at Kandahar and position itself a kilometer from the hijacked aircraft. But before the plane landed, the hijackers were replenishing their weaponry. At around 2 a.m. on Dec. 26, the hijackers brought out from the cargo hold grenades and other weapons: a deadly payload that was apparently loaded at Kathmandu.

The Taliban helped defuse things. After the hijackers issued fresh demands for $200 million and the exhumed body of a comrade, the Taliban persuaded them to drop the appeals, calling them un-Islamic. When the terrorists threatened to start killing passengers, the Taliban's own squads surrounded the plane. The hijackers backed down.

As the days dragged on, the Taliban kept up the pressure on both the hijackers and India. On Dec. 30, Vajpayee gave in. New Delhi agreed to deliver Azhar and two other militants who had been accused of murder and kidnapping. The Taliban arranged for the militants' freedom, but commanded them off Afghanistan's soil. They are believed to be in Pakistan-held Kashmir. The passengers staggered off the plane and onto a flight to New Delhi. Their treatment hadn't been all bad. One passenger, Pooja Kataria, returned with a birthday gift from one of the hijackers: a shawl inscribed with a fond message.

The big winners are, of course, the terrorists and their sprung colleagues. The Taliban has also benefited. It governs a pariah state, and the world refers to it as a Klingon-like usurper group, not as the government of Afghanistan. That could change. India, formerly a fierce critic, now has only nice things to say about the Taliban, though Delhi won't disclose whether steps toward full recognition were part of the bargain in Kandahar. The big loser is anyone who boards a plane in or around the subcontinent. An act of terrorism was always a risk. Now it is even more so.