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Who beheaded Suryanarayana?

Last updated on: May 03, 2006 15:36 IST
One misstep in the Taliban stronghold of Zabul and the chances are that you would be kidnapped or killed.

There have been scores of such incidents and the southern province remains the hotbed of insurgency despite a number of security operations by the US-led coalition forces and the Afghan National Army.

It was, therefore, intriguing that Indian telecommunication engineer Kasula Suryanarayana was driving on the newly built highway from Kabul to Kandahar via Zabul on the evening of April 28 with no security guards. Only his Afghan driver gave him company in one of the most dangerous stretch of territory in Afghanistan.

How safe are Indians in Afghanistan?

Taliban gunmen were waiting. Around 5 pm that Friday, they spotted their prey and intercepted the vehicle carrying the Indian and Afghan nationals. It is possible that the two had been followed or intelligence was passed on to the waiting Taliban about them. From Kabul to Ghazni and Zabul and onwards in Kandahar, Helmand, Nimruz, Farah and Herat, Taliban fighters and sympathisers are everywhere.

Realising the threat, the US has finally prevailed on NATO to provide more than 6,000 troops to cope with the increased Taliban attacks, make the area secure, and extend the writ of the embattled Afghan government.

Britain, Canada and The Netherlands have reluctantly agreed to provide the extra soldiers for deployment in Kandahar, Urozgan and Helmand provinces. Suryanarana was seized and abducted near Hasan Karez village in Zabul's Shahjui district.

Shahjui is the hometown of newly elected member of parliament Abdul Salam Rocketi, a former Mujahideen and Taliban military commander who is one of the few Taliban leaders to have defected the movement and announced support for President Hamid Karzai's government.

But even Rocketi, who got his name due to his expertise in firing RPG-7 rockets and destroying tanks and armoured vehicle carriers, couldn't do anything to prevent the abduction and killing of the Indian engineer.

Such is the fear of the Taliban in these parts that nobody wants to risk his life by taking them on.

Indians in Aghanistan: Fear is the key

By Sunday morning (April 30), Suryanarayana was dead. His body was later found not far from where he was abducted in the same Hasan Karez area. It meant that he was kept nearby. It gave a lie to claims by Afghan government authorities including Zabul's governor that a big security operation had been launched to sweep the area and recover the two kidnapped men.

Nothing of the sort happened. In fact, no real effort had gone into establishing contact with the Taliban.

No doubt the Indian government had shown urgency this time compared with its slow reaction in similar situations in the past. Its ministry of external affairs had expressed its willingness to negotiate the release of Suryanarayana on humanitarian grounds and announced plans to send a three-member delegation for the purpose to Afghanistan.

Deciphering Taliban's message to India

Though no headway had been made for establishing contact with the Taliban, there was hope that something good would come out of the effort by using tribal elders in Zabul as intermediaries or requesting independent persons familiar with Taliban to negotiate the terms for securing Suryanarayana's freedom.

Unlike the previous occasions when India left it to the Afghan government to secure the release of its kidnapped nationals, New Delhi this time was determined to explore every means to save the Indian engineer's life. However, all these efforts proved inadequate in the end when Suryanarayana was killed before the Taliban deadline.

The circumstances of his death are still shrouded in mystery and no independent accounts leading to his murder are available.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, who frequently contacts members of the world media to tell them their side of the story, was one source that fed news of Suryanarayana's abduction and subsequent death to journalists.

Taliban threatens to kill abducted Indian

Late evening on April 26, he was giving information to me and other reporters about the kidnapping of the Indian engineer. He wanted us to wait for the Taliban leadership to firm up demands that would have to be accepted to obtain Suryanarayana's release.

After almost 24 hours, Qari Yousaf was ready to read out the demands. He wanted an Indian government announcement to close down its embassy in Kabul and consulates in a number of provincial capitals, the pullout of all Indians working in Afghanistan and stoppage of work on projects undertaken by Indian firms.

A 24-hour deadline from 6 pm Saturday to 6 pm Sunday (April 29 to 30) was also given along with the threat that failure to accept the demands would result in Suryanarayana's killing.

The demands were far too many and the deadline was impossible to meet.

Even the Taliban realised this fact when Qari Yousaf told me after Suryanarayana's killing that they had made a decision without announcing it that the deadline would be extended thrice for 24 hours each to enable the Indian government to make up its mind.

We will never know if this indeed was the intention or an afterthought.

Pashtun network could have helped India: Expert

There was urgency in Qari Yousaf's voice when he told this writer on his satellite phone Sunday morning (April 30) that Suryanarayana was shot dead while trying to run away. Speaking in Pashto, he claimed the hostage had overpowered one of the Taliban guards and beaten him up in a bid to escape.

He said other guards were alerted and they fired at Suryanarayana and killed him before he could harm the Taliban guard. He also said Suryanarayana's body had been put on the roadside in Shahjui in the same area from where he was abducted.

The body was found soon afterwards. Afghan government officials started claiming that it was beheaded and the body and neck were kept separately.

Taliban kill Indian engineer Suryanarayana

The Taliban insisted they didn't behead the body and even regretted Suryanarayana's death.

The body was flown to his native Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh where his parents, wife and three children were waiting in shock. A dead Suryanarayana was of no use to the Taliban, who could have hoped to win acceptance of one or two of their demands had the Indian engineer been alive.

We don't know the real story but one could think of many presumptions.

It is possible that Suryanarayana had overpowered the guard and snatched his gun. Qari Yousaf conceded that Suryanarayana beat up one of the guards and fled.

But Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran termed it a premeditated killing that took place even before the arrival of his country's negotiating team in Kabul. Terming the Taliban demand that all Indians leave Afghanistan within 24 hours as outrageous, he argued that it testified to the real motivation behind the act of terror.

Afghanistan for close ties with India, Pakistan

His reference to the sponsors of Taliban was taken as a veiled reference to Pakistan, which was one of their biggest supporters prior to 9/11. Although Pakistan has distanced itself from the Taliban and has captured and delivered a number of their leaders and fighters to the US and Afghanistan, it continues to attract flak on account of its past policies.

Islamabad's public concern over the growing Indian influence in Afghanistan and its allegation that New Delhi was using its embassies and consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad to fuel insurgency in Balochistan and Waziristan is nowadays mentioned as evidence that Pakistan would be happy if the Indians were forced to pack up and leave.

India, Afghanistan for joint fight against terror

Suryanarayana's death earned a bad name for the Taliban and reinforced their reputation of being an extremist and ultra-conservative group given to violent ways.

Six months ago in November 2005, they had kidnapped and killed another Indian national, Maniappan Raman Kutty, who worked as a driver in the southwestern Nimruz province with the Border Roads Organisation on the Indian-funded Delaram-Zaranj road linking southwestern Afghanistan with the Iranian seaport Chahbahar.

On that occasion, the Taliban had complained that nobody in the Indian or Afghan government contacted them for his release and, therefore, forced them to kill him on the expiry of quite a few deadlines. Twice before that, the Taliban had abducted Indian workers and freed them after reportedly striking a deal with the Afghan government to secure release of Taliban fighters held by Kabul.

With the Taliban attacks on the rise, there is every possibility of further abductions of Indian workers in Afghanistan. India has sought the Afghan government's permission to deploy a contingent of Central Reserve Police Force in Afghanistan to protect the around 2,500 Indians working on mostly New Delhi-funded reconstruction and development projects.

Security for Indians in Afghanistan under review

There are already 200 personnel of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police providing security to Indians working on India-aided projects in Afghanistan.

Then there are Indians like Suryanarayana who was employed by Bahrain-based al-Muet company, working with non-Indian firms.

Careful of Pakistani sensitivities and eager not to look weak, the Karzai government has until now delayed decision on the Indian request. Islamabad would not approve of the move, more so on account of reports in the Pakistani press that India would deploy army commandos near Pakistan's borders in Afghanistan.

Indian's abduction: Govt reviews situation

It is obvious that the issue is complex and fraught with risks. Many Afghans say India and Pakistan were fighting a proxy war in their war-ravaged country. Supporters of the Karzai government don't like Pakistani criticism of their warm relations with India.

The Taliban, on the other hand, consider India an enemy for supporting and strengthening the Afghan government and backing the presence of US-led foreign forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistan would be happy if the Taliban continue to harass the Indians in Afghanistan though it doesn't want and cannot oppose the Karzai government due to American pressure. US and NATO troops want to stay in Afghanistan for several years and their presence would fuel insurgency by Islamic militant groups ranging from Al Qaeda to the Taliban.

In the circumstances, we should expect further such incidents that would destabilise an already unstable region.

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