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December 31, 1999
'The extra names were only a red herring'
Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
The agreement to hand over three militants imprisoned in Indian jails, including Maulana Masood Azhar, in exchange for the hostages on board Flight 814, is seen as a capitulation by the government to the hijackers.
"It was a battle of nerves and we lost it," said an extremely angry senior government official who preferred anonymity. "The battle was half lost the day the aircraft flew out of Amritsar, but now it is completely lost."
Officially, the government has claimed that the only demand of the hijackers was the release of the three released militants, Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Ahmed Omar Syed Shaikh. While Azhar was jailed in Jammu, Zargar was incarcerated in Srinagar and Shaikh in Delhi.
However, highly placed sources said there could be other demands that have not yet been made public. One such demand is that the hijackers be given safe passage. Whether it is to Pakistan or a third country is not yet known, but the question of the hijackers being prosecuted in India is now out of the question.
It is also likely that from the very beginning the hijackers's demand was limited to Azhar and a couple of others. "This sudden demand for 35 others was made just to make it look as if the government has achieved a partial victory by bringing down the number to three. It now appears that the other names were just a red herring," said.
The three armed forces chiefs, who met the prime minister earlier today, expressed their displeasure at the government's decision, and argued that it would lead to a rise in militant activities once more in Kashmir and other parts of the country.
Kashmir observers are wary about the effect the release of Azhar and Zargar will have on the terrorist organisations. Azhar is an ideologue and his ability to inspire militant organisations could create further trouble in Kashmir, it is feared. The Harkat-ul Ansar has links with foreign militants also, especially the Taleban.
Government sources pointed out that Zargar is a dreaded militant who was extremely active when violence first broke out in the valley. His return to militancy could imply another spell of killings in the valley.
NIGHTMARE ON FLIGHT 814
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