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May 25, 1998


Pak commandos overpower Baluch hijackers

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Pakistan army commandos overpowered disgruntled Baluchistan tribesmen today, who hijacked a Pakistan International Airlines plane with 29 people aboard to protest nuclear testing in their home province.

During the showdown there was an exchange of gunfire, but all the passengers escaped unhurt, a defence ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

However initial reports said an army major received gunshot wounds. His wounds were not life threatening, they said.

One of the hijackers hurt himself in the scuffle. All the hijackers have been arrested, defence ministry officials said. There were only three hijackers and not five as was originally believed.

The men had hijacked the aircraft eight hours earlier demanding to go to India, but a Pakistan air force fighter jet intercepted the plane and forced it to land in Pakistan.

The Fokker Friendship propeller aircraft, which had taken off from Baluchistan last evening, was forced down in Hyderabad, about 150 kilometres north of Karachi, its destination.

The crew of the Fokker plane calmed their captors by telling them that the plane had crossed into Indian territory and was preparing to land in Rajasthan, according to the Pakistan defence ministry.

Throughout the negotiations it appears the hijackers believed they were in India and a government official posed as Pakistan's ambassador to India to negotiate with them, the state-run news agency, the Associated Press of Pakistan said.

For eight hours negotiators bartered with the hijackers for the release of their passengers. The plane remained parked on the tarmac in Hyderabad, about 200 kilometers from the Indian frontier, its lights extinguished and engines off.

Negotiators tried to convince the hijackers to release their hostages and just moments before they were overpowered by the army commandos, they freed eight of their hostages.

There were initial reports that all the hijackers had been persuaded to leave the aircraft; however it seems only two had left the aircraft.

The hijackers were identified by the defence ministry as members of the Baluchistan Students Federation, a group that has been protesting reported plans by Pakistan to test a nuclear device in southwestern Baluchistan province.

It was earlier believed that 38 people were on board, but defence ministry officials confirmed 29 people aboard the aircraft, including crew members.

A crew member from Flight 554 was released with a list of written demands from the hijackers including a demand for fuel and safe passage to New Delhi.

Defence ministry officials said the hijackers also accused the government of ignoring Baluchistan and spending money on nuclear tests.

Two of the hijackers were armed with guns and the other had grenades. Throughout the standoff the airport was cordoned off and a commando unit brought in from southern Karachi. The aircraft was surrounded by ambulances and fire trucks.

There have been several anti-government demonstrations in Baluchistan -- many of them led by the BSF -- since reports surfaced last week that Pakistan was preparing a site for testing in the Chagai region of the province, near the border with Iran.

According to both defence ministry and intelligence officials the hijackers also were angry that Baluchistan had not received money promised by the government to rebuild their flood-devastated region.

The Fokker was en route from the desolate Baluchistan province to the port city of Karachi when it was hijacked, officials at Karachi airport said. It had landed at nearby Gwador and taken off again before the hijackers revealed themselves and demanded that the aircraft go to India, airport officials said.

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