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December 25, 1999
Released hostages return to Delhi
Onkar Singh and Josy Joseph in New Delhi
The 27 hostages released in Dubai early this morning by the hijackers of Indian Airlines Flight IC-814 returned to New Delhi at about 2245 IST on the special Airbus 320 sent by the government to fetch them. Accompanying them was Union Civil Aviation Minister Sharad Yadav.
While Yadav engaged the crowd of reporters at the airport on arrival, the passengers were whisked away to their homes in waiting cars with police escorts. No one was allowed to meet them. This led to some chaos at the airport as journalists tried to gatecrash their way and meet the returning passengers, leading to a baton-charge by the police.
Only Satnam Singh, from Punjab, and his wife and child were presented to reporters. Singh had knife injuries on his face. He, however, did not speak to the reporters, nor did his wife. Yadav explained that Singh could not speak because of his wounds. He was later admitted to a hospital.
Two other passengers also had injuries. One of them, who had suffered serious wounds, was rushed to a hospital in Vasant Vihar, a senior Delhi police officer told rediff.com.
Gaurav Sethi, brother of Sandeep Sethi, a passenger still on board the Indian Airlines flight, said he spoke to one of the "lucky" women who returned from Dubai. He did not know her name but said she was carrying an infant. Apparently, the hijackers were armed with no more than one or two kitchen knives and a revolver.
Referring to the delay in bringing the released hostages back, Yadav said it was caused by procedures that had to be completed before the body of Rupin Katyal, 25, the man who was stabbed to death by the hijackers, could be released to the Indian authorities. The body also had to be embalmed, adding to the delay.
Sources in security agencies also said operatives of the Research and Analysis Wing quizzed the released hostages in the United Arab Emirates itself. This facilitated their quick exit from Delhi airport on arrival.
From this debriefing, the intelligence agencies now believe that the hijackers are armed only with two knives, two pistols -- which a lady passenger described as ''of 1940s vintage'' -- and two grenades. One of the hijackers is a very well-dressed man who speaks impeccable English while another is a man with Mongoloid features. Three of them were speaking in Kashmiri while two were speaking in Hindi. Not much more could be gleaned about them, however, as they were mostly masked.
Citing the report from the debriefing, the minister revealed that seven of the male passengers were actually tied up and that Katyal was killed -- his jugular was slit -- in Amritsar. It seems the hijackers were almost paranoid in Amritsar, fearing some sort of rescue operation. It also explains their speedy departure from there without even waiting for the aircraft to be refuelled.
The minister explained that the hijackers appeared to be hardened and cunning ("chatur") professionals who managed to cow down the 178 passengers and 11 crew by merely brandishing knives and antique pistols.
The security sources said the hijack drama has now entered a critical phase, with the ordeal having dragged on for more than 24 hours, and the hijackers could be getting frustrated, which is probably why they had sought political asylum in Afghanistan. The Taliban government has, however, rejected their appeal. The sources also said the government in Afghanistan was co-operating better with the Indian authorities in trying to end the crisis.
Meanwhile, it is learnt that the air traffic controllers in Kandahar have established contact with their counterparts in Delhi through a facsimile communication. The fax said the hijackers had sought the release of a few persons currently in Indian jails, though they named only one, Maulana Masood Azhar.
The hijackers, it is learnt, want to give a list of names to the United Nations, and not the Taliban that rules Afghanistan. Sources said a brother of the maulana is among the hijackers.
The UN, meanwhile, is believed to have agreed to mediate and try to end the crisis. The UN, like India, does not recognise the Taliban regime as Afghanistan's legitimate government.
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