New Delhi — President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq is facing criticism from outside his country as well as from within for his government's handling of Friday's hijacking of a Pan Am flight in Karachi. Attention is now focused on how the President will deal with the four hijackers, who are widely believed to be Palestinian guerrillas. Pakistan has long supported Palestinian rights. General Zia is under considerable pressure to act tough. At a press conference, he said the gunmen ``would be hanged if convicted of murder and hijacking.'' He also pointed out that the country's antiterrorism law calls for the death penalty.
At the same time, Zia is in the tricky position of trying not to jeopardize relations with Arab nations. He said he would continue to support and recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization, even if the gunmen are proved to be Palestinians.
Pakistan is expected by the United States to take firm steps against the hijackers so as not to put additional strains on US-Pakistan ties. The crackdown on Pakistan's political opposition last month proved a setback to the country's bid to convince US policy makers that it was on its way toward democratic changes.
The release Monday of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, analysts believe, is one indication that Zia feels confident enough that the political situation is now under control. Miss Bhutto and several hundred oppositionists, also released Monday, were detained Aug. 13 for defying a government ban on public meetings. Bhutto has vowed to continue peaceful agitation to oust Zia and have fresh general elections. So far, the opposition campaign has not taken off as expected.
Even as the US government officially applauded Pakistan for its ``exemplary resolve'' in handling the hijacking, confusion and controversy still surround the sequence of events that caused the death of at least 19 persons.
Zia has refused to extradite the hijackers to the US, but said that his government will cooperate with US investigation teams which arrived in Karachi. The conflicting versions of events have raised questions about the efficiency of the government's antihijacking operations.
In Washington, some officials appear to believe that the hijacking could have been settled with less bloodshed if Pakistan had responsed immediately to the US offer of advice and help. Pan Am has suspended flights to Karachi pending an explanation for the lapse in security.
In a regional context, Pakistan's ties with India seem to have deteriorated further as a result of the hijacking. Reacting angrily, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi blamed Pakistani authorites for ``bungling'' the whole affair.
Mr. Gandhi accused Pakistan of encouraging hijacking. He said India had positive evidence that weapons used by hijackers of an Indian Airlines plane last year were those acquired by Pakistani security forces. ``It is when hijackers are encouraged in this manner that hijackings take place,'' Gandhi said.
Pakistan has not escaped domestic criticism either. Pakistani newspapers appear to have come out strongly against the government for having failed to clarify the confusion about the hijacking.