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November 30, 2000

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From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

JANUARY 14, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 1

Operation Bungle?
How India mishandled the hijacking crisis


In 24 minutes or less, commandos of the elite National Security Guard (NSG) can board a plane in New Delhi for any destination facing a terrorist threat. So when five hijackers linked to the Kashmir uprising forced an Indian airliner to land in Amritsar on Christmas eve, the dispatching of the NSG to the Sikh holy city seemed like a foregone conclusion. In fact, the commandos never left the capital. Shortly after the eight-day drama ended on New Year's eve, Home Minister L.K. Advani cited two reasons why he did not order the NSG to storm the airliner, which was on a flight from Kathmandu to New Delhi. First, he said, the hijackers were armed with AK-47 assault rifles, which would have heightened the risk of a commando raid. And second, said Advani, the hijacked Airbus 300 kept moving on the runway.

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On both counts, Advani was incorrect. During the 40 minutes that the airliner was on Indian soil - it was later commandeered to Lahore, Abu Dhabi and finally to Kandahar in Afghanistan - the hijackers had no assault rifles. It was faulty intelligence that led Advani to believe that they did. Further, Advani's assertion that the plane was never stationary is only partially true. Fearing an attack, the hijackers did indeed ensure that the aircraft moved around, but there were several moments when it came to a halt. Advani's statements were contradicted by Civil Aviation Minister Sharad Yadav, who said that initially the hijackers were so inadequately armed - they had pistols and knives - that even the hostages "could have overpowered" them.

In any case, Advani was only making excuses for what is widely seen as a monumental blunder by his government. Not only did New Delhi lose a golden opportunity to end the crisis without caving into the demands of the hijackers, but it allowed the hijackers to fly out of India. Subsequently, the government proved how its Crisis Management Group (CMG), a high-profile organization formed to deal with security threats, just wasn't up to the job. When reports of the hijacking first came in, nobody in New Delhi had a full list of CMG personnel. The inefficiency was further exposed in Kandahar, where the government flew a 30-member Indian team to resolve the crisis: Hardly any one of them had the telephone numbers of ministers from the Taliban Islamic militia-led regime, which India does not recognize.

The drama ended on Dec. 31 when New Delhi freed three high-profile guerrillas in exchange for 155 hostages. The hijackers and their comrades were given 10 hours to leave Afghanistan, and New Delhi believes they crossed the Pakistan border not far from Kandahar. The fact that two of the freed rebels are Pakistanis has been advanced as flimsy proof by New Delhi of Islamabad's involvement in the hijacking. India also claims - without evidence - that all the hijackers are Pakistanis. On Jan. 3, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee described the entire incident as an "integral part of a Pakistan-backed campaign of terrorism." India, he went on, "strongly urges major nations of the world to declare Pakistan a terrorist state."

The message was primarily aimed at the United States, which promptly cold-shouldered Vajpayee. Clearly, Washington wants India to continue its dialogue with Islamabad, which has been stalled since the Kargil conflict last summer. Since then, hostile statements from the two sides have become an almost daily affair, reinforcing U.S. fears that South Asia remains the most dangerous flashpoint for a nuclear conflict. Now, against the backdrop of the hijacking, Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist-led coalition has effectively closed the door on any kind of discussion with Pakistan.

"The impact on Indian-Pakistani relations will be very bad," says Australian academic William Maley, a South Asia expert. New Delhi views the hijacking as a dangerous escalation in Pakistan's proxy war against India. Although Pakistan's military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf has denied any involvement, he has been "openly taking a hard line on Kashmir," as one senior Indian official put it. "It's a question of upping the ante." New Delhi believes - as do many independent observers - that no militant group fighting for Kashmir has the expertise to execute such a hijacking without some degree of state-level logistical support.

New Delhi's suspicions have focused on Kathmandu, long a cockpit of covert operations by both Indian and Pakistani intelligence agents. According to an Indian source, two Pakistani diplomats, Arshad Cheema and Zia Ansari, were at Kathmandu airport when the Indian airliner left for New Delhi.

Certain events in Kandahar, too, appear fishy. Though the Taliban has earned praise for deftly handling the crisis, two French hostages say they saw their captors loading pistols after meeting lower-level members of the tribal militia. At the very least, this raises the possibility that the hijackers rather boldly started out with empty handguns - perhaps fearing sniffer dogs would be alerted by ammunition.

PM Vajpayee has been portraying the hostage swap as "a bargain" - three rebels in exchange for 155 innocent lives - but that's not how most Indians see it. The Indian Express aptly echoed the popular sentiment in a recent front-page report. "In the end," said the national daily, the hijackers "brought an entire nation to its knees." Barring the Kashmir Valley, that is.

With reporting by Ayaz Gul/Kandahar, Sanjay Kapoor/New Delhi and Anthony Davis

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