Saturday, January 1, 2000,
Chandigarh, India


M A I N   N E W S

Jaswant brings hostages home
Emotional scenes of reunion at airport
From K.V. Prasad and R. Suryamurthy
Tribune News Service

NEW DELHI, Dec 31 — The country’s longest aircraft hijack ordeal ended today with the 154 hostages plus crew of the Indian Airlines IC-814 aircraft returning home after eight days — hours away from the new millennium.

Joyous scenes marked the evening as passengers stepped on the Indian soil after the government bought their freedom by letting free three hardcore militants who were transported on a special plane along with the External Affairs Minister, Mr Jaswant Singh.

The hostages released earlier came home in two planes — the first batch of 101 passengers were transported in the Alliance Air Boeing 737 which ironically had carried the militants this morning to Kandahar. The rest of them came in an Airbus 300 which had carried the team of Indian negotiators earlier this week.

The first plane touched down at 8.45 pm with the second arrived 20 minutes later. The hijacked Airbus will remain at Kandahar for checks before being taken out.

The government made special arrangements at the airport tonight, including live telecast of the momentous arrival of the passengers most of whom broke down while some saluted the soil through a typical Indian gesture of rubbing the ground and applying it on the forehead.

And receiving the first batch at the parking bay as they came down the ladder were the Union Civil Aviation Minister, Mr Sharad Yadav, and the Minister of State for Civil Aviation, Mr Chaman Lal Gupta, while some relatives also had the chance of greet them.

The Prime Minister, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, who met the leaders of the Opposition defended the decision stating there was no option but to let go the militants in the wake of criticism from the Opposition and many other sections against the action.

Mr Jaswant Singh, on his arrival at the airport emphasised that India’s fight against terrorism would “continue unrelentingly’’.

“India’s fight against terrorism will continue unrelentingly. Let it be known that no criminal who dare rises against India will ultimately go unpunished’’ he said.

The External Affairs Minister also expressed his gratitude to the Taliban and the Afghan authorities for their cooperation which he termed as constructive during “this trying period’’.

After prolonged negotiations the deal was clinched early this morning with India agreeing to swap three hardcore militants — two Pakistanis Mohammed Masood Azhar, Ahmed Umar Saeed Sheikh and a Kashmiri Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar — against the 150-odd hostages held by five armed hijackers who took over the Delhi-Kathmandu flight on December 24.

The three militants who were transported from maximum security prisons of Jammu, Srinagar and Delhi were flown to Kandahar on a special aircraft with Mr Jaswant Singh accompanying them along with a few officials.

The hijackers who earlier demanded the release of 36 militants, (US) dollars 200 million and a coffin of a slain militant, had toned it down to just the release of 36 militants. In the end they took away three militants incarcerated for their subversive activities against India in various jails.

The hijackers who virtually held the nation to ransom slid away from a rope ladder one by one and turned their arms to the Taliban militia after satisfying themselves that the persons whose release they demanded had indeed arrived.

“This is the best gift of the millennium’’ Dr Sanjay Chibber exclaimed as he awaited the arrival of his relative. Dr Chibber was one of the most vocal critics during the early phase of the hijack and led a campaign, including public demonstrations, to release militants in lieu of the hostages.

However, another relative while elated over the turn of events was also reflective over the exchange of militants. He said he felt the move would not do any good for the security of the country.

Another passenger who preferred anonymity said the move to force the government came about after the relatives met several Union Cabinet Ministers to put pressure on the government to end the hijack crisis without delay.

The entire government machinery was put into top gear with a fleet of vehicles hired by the Indian Airlines ready to transport those who just earned freedom from the clutches of the hijackers to safety.



Freedom after 8 days of agony

KANDAHAR, Dec 31 (Reuters) — All hostages on Indian Airlines IC-814 walked to freedom today in an apparently peaceful end to their ordeal after India agreed to free three Kashmiri militants.

The week-long drama that spanned five countries and cost one life ended when five gunmen disappeared into the southern Afghan city of Kandahar and more than 150 hostages got their liberty.

The masked hijackers, who stabbed a newly married man to death for removing his blindfold last weekend, climbed down steps under the cockpit and drove into this city in southern Afghanistan in a deal overseen personally by Mr Singh.

He arrived from New Delhi in a special aircraft also thought to be carrying three militants whose release was enough to satisfy the hijackers, who are thought to be Kashmiri militants.

Soon after the hijackers left Kandahar airport, steps were pushed to the main door of the Airbus A300, which was seized at gunpoint on a short flight from Nepal one week ago.

The passengers walked down the steps to waiting vehicles and were then driven to the aircraft which brought their Indian negotiators across South Asia to Kandahar, the spiritual capital of the Taliban movement, on Monday.

Taliban officials said the hostages looked weak, weary and exhausted after being cooped up inside the aircraft for the entire duration of their ordeal.

The passengers walked into the welcoming arms of dozens of Indian officials and representatives of the Taliban movement, as well as members of the United Nations and diplomats.

Indian officials have said they hope to have the hostages back in New Delhi by 9 pm.

Originally the hijackers demanded the freedom of jailed cleric Masood Azhar but then upped their demands to include a 200 million dollars ransom, freedom for Azhar and 35 other Muslim activists and the return of the body of a slain militant.

But the demands were scaled down in painstaking negotiations carried out over two-way radios and facilitated by the Taliban, a movement which has been much criticised by India for backing Islamic causes.

Meanwhile, in New Delhi, the Union Cabinet today endorsed the decision of the Cabinet Committee on Security to handover three militants to hijackers to seek the release of 155 hostages of the Indian Airlines aircraft grounded since Saturday in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

The Cabinet, which was presided over by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, felt that the release of the militants became imperative as the aircraft went to territory where we had no control.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan said the Cabinet was told that the decision to swap three militants for 155 hostages was taken in the interest of the nation and for the safety of passengers and the crew.Back

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