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India steps up hunt for hijackers

Last updated on: October 12, 2004 18:47 IST


Having established its consulates in the Afghan cities of Herat in the west, Kandahar in the south and Jalalabad in the east, the Indian government is making renewed attempts to get hold of any evidence that could prove the Inter Services Intelligence's involvement in the December 24, 1999 hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814.

For the first time since the hijacking, Indian and American investigation agencies have reached the epicentre.

Two deputy inspectors general of the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation and the same number of Federal Bureau of Investigation officials have reportedly visited Kandahar to interrogate the Taliban-backed masterminds of the operation, which led to the hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane as soon as it took off from Kathmandu airport on December 24, 1999.

Nightmare on Flight 814: complete coverage

Before proceeding to Kandahar, the Indian officials reportedly got permission from the Afghan government to question several Taliban operatives including Mullah Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, who happened to be Afghanistan's foreign minister during Taliban rule and a key witness in the 1999 hijack.

The Indian plane was on its way to Delhi from Kathmandu when five armed men hijacked it over Varanasi. They first took it to Amritsar and from there to Lahore. After refueling in Lahore, the plane then took off for Dubai where the hijackers allowed 21 passengers to disembark before they took it to Kandahar.

Although an Indian Rupin Katyal was murdered by the hijackers, the rest of the passengers returned home safely after spending a week from December 24 to 31 in captivity before they were released in exchange for the release of three Pakistani terrorists -- Masood Azhar, Omar Ahmed Sheikh and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar.

Sheikh has now been convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl. The Indian and American authorities subsequently registered separate cases against the hijackers.

The Daniel Pearl murder: complete coverage

Pakistani intelligence operatives in Kabul are learnt to have provided highly disturbing information to their bosses back home, according to which FBI agents seized exceptionally revealing taperecorded conversations between the hijackers of IC-814 and Air Traffic Control in Kandahar.

Some of the information contained in those tapes was recently shared with Indian intelligence, pursuing which an FBI team went to India while a CBI team visited Kandahar to follow up on those leads. The FBI reportedly extended full cooperation to the CBI because an American national, Jeanne Moore (a psychotherapist from Bakersfield, California), was amongst the passengers.

While pursuing the criminal case registered in the US against the hijackers, an FBI team recorded Moore's testimony and visited New Delhi thrice to discuss her abduction and progress in the case.

Determined to get to the bottom of the hijack, the FBI has set up an office in New Delhi to cooperate with India to curb growing terrorism.

The CBI, on the other hand, says it has acquired the record of incoming calls at Air Traffic Control at Kandahar airport.

'Two high-ranking ISI officers were present on the tarmac in Kandahar when the Indian negotiating team landed there,' French writer Bernard Henri-Levy writes in his book Who Killed Daniel Pearl.

'They were later joined by colleagues from the special operations wing of the ISI's Quetta station. Negotiations were being conducted over wireless sets. The five hijackers got careless and inadvertently allowed Indian negotiators to overhear them, taking the following instructions from Urdu-speaking men:

Hijacker to Indian negotiator: Come and take charge of the aircraft.

Negotiator: Okay, we're coming.

Overheard voice (in Urdu): Don't release the aircraft before you retrieve your baggage from the cargo hold.

Hijacker to negotiator: Hum plane release nahin kar sakte (We cannot release the aircraft).

Negotiator to hijacker: It will take time to clear the cargo hold and segregate your baggage and then there will be further delay. We guarantee you we will take the designated baggage of the passengers and return yours.

Overheard voice: Nahin, woh bahut zaroori hain. (No it is very important).

Hijacker to prompter: Yeh (the Indians) nahin maan rahein hain (These Indians are not agreeing).

Overheard voice: Tell them the baggage contains explosives.

The hijackers were subsequently allowed to remove their baggage. It later transpired the baggage held diaries containing phone numbers and addresses of their intelligence contacts in Nepal.

During and after the hijack drama, Islamabad vehemently denied having any role in it and went to the extent of offering to negotiate on New Delhi's behalf.

The fact, however, remains that Mufti Abdul Rauf, the younger brother of Jaish-e-Mohammad founder Masood Azhar, and his brother-in-law Yusuf Azhar were among the hijackers whilst the Jaish chief who was to be released by the Indian government from a Srinagar jail was shortly seen leading victory processions in Pakistan.

According to well-placed Pakistani intelligence sources, the CBI has informed the FBI that Muttawakil had played an adverse role during the plane hijack leaving then Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh red-faced by going back on several commitments made during the negotiations with the hijackers.

The Indian side says Wakil, who acted as an interlocutor at Kandahar after the IC-814 plane landed there, was also hostile during the negotiations.

When Jaswant Singh landed in Kandahar with Masood Azhar, Sheikh and Zargar Wakil had made it a point to assure him that the hijackers and terrorists would be held in Afghan custody until all the Indians left Kandahar. However, as soon as the three Pakistani militants were handed over to the hijackers, they were provided with a jeep in which they victoriously drove away.

The CBI believed that Muttawakil would be able to divulge more details about the intricacies of the hijack such as contacts that hijackers had with the outside world including instructions and logistical support they received from Pakistan.

Therefore, during the Indo-US Joint Working Group on Terrorism meeting held on July 11 and 12, 2003 in Washington, India requested the Bush administration to permit the FBI to allow the CBI to grill Muttawakil.

After being denied access for almost two years, Indian investigators finally debriefed Muttawakil and other Taliban leaders.

What is not known to the Pakistani intelligence is whether Muttawakil was questioned for reconstructing the hijack or whether he agreed to record a statement as a witness in the ongoing trial in a Patiala court.

The FBI investigators are convinced that on several occasions, Muttawakil used the Air Traffic Control channel to speak to the hijackers and to some Pakistani officials.

Therefore, he, more than any other Taliban official, had the total picture of how the hijack was facilitated by Pakistan and where the five hijackers were headed after the hijack ended.

India insists that Pakistan's role in the hijacking should be seen within the context of the Taliban's then official spokesman Abdul Haj Mutmaen's January 1, 1999 statement that the hijackers and terrorists that had been released from Indian jails were left on the Pak-Afghan border near Quetta, Baluchistan.

From India's point of view -- any evidence that could establish the role of Pakistani intelligence in the hijack could put enormous pressure on Islamabad for the custody of the IC-814 hijackers. Under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation's convention on extradition and mutual assistance in tackling criminal activities, India made two formal requests for the extradition of the five hijackers and their accomplices.

But the Pakistani government refused to oblige, maintaining that if any person suspected of being involved in the hijacking was to be found on its territory or in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Islamabad would undertake to apprehend and prosecute the suspect.

The then CBI Director R K Raghavan subsequently raised the issue with Interpol officials during Interpol's 69th annual conference in Athens.

Soon afterwards, Interpol issued a red corner alert (look-out notice) to Pakistan, Britain, the United Arab Emirates, Nepal and Bangladesh against the five hijackers and two accomplices who are believed to be the key conspirators in the hijacking.

However, the Indian side is not very hopeful about getting their custody even after issuance of a red corner notice given the fact that several countries did not comply with the warrant from the international organisation Despite a resolution to make mandatory warrants of the Interpol at its annual 1997 conference in New Delhi, several countries still had to ratify it to turn it into an appropriate law.

The CBI has already filed a chargesheet against ten people in the hijacking case, including three Indians -- Abdul Latif alias Patel, Bhupalmar Damai alias Yusuf Nepali and Dilip Kumar Bhujel.

The CBI chargesheet alleges that the hijackers possessed a very sophisticated satellite telephone to communicate with their masterminds in Rawalpindi.

The other seven accused, all Pakistani nationals, were Ibrahim Athar, Sunny Ahmed Qazi, Zahoor Ibrahim, Shahid Akhtar Sayed and Shakir and accomplices Yusuf Azhar and Abdul Rauf. Yusuf Azhar and Abdul Rauf are believed to be the key conspirators.

Islamabad, however, has repeatedly denied these charges.

This report is based on Chapter VI of Amir Mir's recent book The True Face of Jehadis published by Mashal Books.

Image: Uday Kuckian

rediff Strategic Affairs Bureau