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December 27, 1999
Government spirits look up, finally
Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
The hijacking nightmare has crossed 72 hours, entering Day 4. But for the first time in the ongoing crisis, the government is gaining confidence that the crisis will be resolved in its favour. And though government officials are chary of putting forth a timeframe, there is quiet confidence that over the next 24 hours, the breakthrough should come about.
The confidence stems from many quarters. But clearly the most important is the fact that the Taleban regime in Afghanistan has begun to get tough with the hijackers, and seems to be finally throwing in its lot with India.
The Taleban's chief, Mullah Omar Abdullah has categorically warned the hijackers not to harm any passenger on board the aircraft. The Taleban authorities have further warned the hijackers that they would not hesitate to storm the plane should any passenger be harmed. In New York, the Taleban representative at the United Nations told rediff.com that the Taleban was considering a rescue operation.
"The Taleban has now shown that they have no intention of risking the world's condemnation and will do nothing to make life easier for the hijackers. So the greatest advantage of the hijackers, that of being in Afghanistan and in a friendly environment, is slowly but surely wearing out," said sources in the government.
The sources believe that it was the increasing international pressure, especially from Japan and other Western countries which have begun to criticise the hijacking, that is forcing the Taleban to get tough with the hijackers. The Western countries were slow to respond because of the long Christmas weekend that saw many governments shut down.
Over the last few months, the Taleban regime has been desperately trying to gain recognition from the international community. The sources believe that the Taleban will not allow any action by the hijackers to jeopardise this effort.
Second is the fact that the Indian government has successfully called the hijackers' bluff by refusing to free Masood Azhar (the hijackers' primary demand). Prime Minister A B Vajpayee was categorical that while India would do everything for the passengers' safety, national interest could not be compromised. He even told this to the relatives of the passengers despite their entreaties to free Masood Azhar. The opposition parties have also endorsed the government's stand.
What is worse from the hijackers' point of view is that the Indian negotiating team reached Kandahar much beyond the deadline set by the hijackers, forcing the latter to first extend the deadline by three hours and then to whatever time the Indian team arrived in Kandahar.
"This is a game of nerves," said the sources. "These are deliberately taken steps to gain the maximum advantage, so that when we start talking, it is we who will hold the aces. So far all of them were held by the hijackers, but now some are coming our way," the sources said.
Third is the purely physical. It is anyone's guess that everyone must be exhausted after three days of vigil and stress, but none more so than the hijackers. The hijackers, constantly on edge, must be keener than anyone else to get over with the incident, wanting to start and end the negotiations as soon as possible. Especially now since the possibility of the aircraft being stormed gets higher with every passing hour.
While the Indian negotiators are fresh and keyed up, the hijackers are tired and exhausted. Worse, they will now be extremely chary of carrying out their main weapon: the threat to kill a hostage for fear of upsetting the Taleban authorities in Kandahar and Afghanistan.
"These hijackers do not appear to be suicidal. They must surely be wanting to disappear once the hijacking is over and the best place for them is Afghanistan. Hence they are unlikely to do anything that will upset the Taleban. The Taleban in turn is worried about the international repercussions and will do nothing that will be seen to help the hijackers. Thus, in such a situation, we are hopeful of a breakthrough in the next 24 hours," said the sources.
The government is moving in slow and calibrated steps (often to the utter frustration of observers and the relatives of the passengers on board), but with each step forward, its confidence is growing.
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