Hijackers wage their holy war

A Pakistan-based group, taking over Indian Airlines Flight 814 on

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

This isn't the first time the group claiming responsibility for hijacking an Indian Airlines jet Friday night has taken hostages.

In fact, the hijacking is the fourth hostage-taking that the group, the Harakat ul-Mujahideen, has carried out to secure the release of seven Islamic militants, including an Islamic cleric from Pakistan, Maulana Masood Azhar. He was arrested in India in 1994 for alleged involvement in the separatist struggle in Indian-administered Kashmir.

In 1995, the Harakat kidnapped five Western tourists in Kashmir. One of the hostages, Hans Christian Ostro of Norway, was later found dead, and the others, including one American, are missing and presumed dead.

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The Harakat ul-Mujahideen - to use its latest name - is a Pakistan-based group fighting a worldwide jihad, or holy war, with help from terrorist godfather Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia, and, according to some experts, Pakistani intelligence.

The Harakat is a fanatical, highly factionalized group, which has claimed responsibility for bombings in Indian-administered Kashmir. Its patron is a leading Pakistani politician, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a one-time ally of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Indian defense analyst Manoj Joshi says the group is linked to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence.

The group has several thousand armed extremists fighting Indian security forces in the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, and occasionally joins military offensives against the Taliban's opponents in Afghanistan.

The group's involvement in the fight against the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s, and its aim of forging a single fundamentalist Islamic nation under one flag, brought it close to Saudi-born extremist Osama bin Laden, who trained its fighters at his Al-Badr military camps near Khost in eastern Afghanistan. The US attacked the camps in August last year, killing dozens of militants.

Mr. Bin Laden has been indicted by a US court for masterminding the bombing of US Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salam, Tanzania, earlier that month. Afghanistan is currently under UN sanctions for failing to hand Bin Laden over for trial in a third country.

But while such attacks damage the branches of Harakat-ul Mujahideen, its roots in a network of fundamentalist madrassas, or religious schools, in Pakistan remain intact. Here, boys as young as 13 are recruited for the jihad abroad.

On Friday, five men armed with pistols, hand grenades, and knives seized control of Indian Airlines Flight 814 soon after it took off from the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, en route to the Indian capital. The pilot was directed to land at Lahore, Pakistan, but authorities there refused and the plane diverted to the Indian city of Amritsar.

As fuel tankers there moved toward the aircraft, the hijackers apparently panicked, stabbing several passengers, one of them fatally. The plane flew on to a military airbase near Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where 27 hostages were exchanged for food and fuel. The plane then flew on to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where it landed on Saturday morning local time.

Several of the released passengers said sanitary conditions inside the plane were atrocious, and the stabbing incident had traumatized other passengers. Temperatures in Kandahar were forecast to fall below zero overnight.

Four employees of Tribhuvan International airport in Kathmandu have been arrested for suspected involvement in allowing the hijackers onto the plane.

A three-member United Nations delegation led by Erick de Mul arrived in Kandahar early yesterday on what a UN spokesman described as a humanitarian mission. Before returning to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, last night, Mr. de Mul had secured the release of one passenger, an Indian national who was ill. But the UN refused to mediate in the crisis.

In New Delhi, angry relatives of the Indian hostages stormed a news conference being given by the External Affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, demanding the government meet the hijackers' demand. Mr. Singh said earlier that the government was considering the hijackers' demand, but was contradicted by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who said "no such demand has been officially received."

India does not have diplomatic relations with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but the Indian External Affairs ministry said the government was in touch with Taliban authorities.

"We are in touch with the authorities in Kandahar, and all kinds of options are being looked at. The primary concern and priority is to secure the safe return of the passengers and the crew," spokesman Singh Jaissal said.

The Taliban's foreign minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, said the Taliban did not want to act as intermediary. "It would be better if the Indian people came themselves to get involved in the negotiations," Mr. Muttawakil told reporters at Kandahar, 300 miles south of the capital Kabul.

The longer the crisis was prolonged, the more danger it posed to the passengers, said a Western diplomat, requesting anonymity. The passengers include eight Nepalese, four Spanish, four Swiss, two French, and one each from Australia, Canada, the United States, Belgium, Japan, and Italy.

Already facing accusations of involvement in supporting Islamic terrorist groups, both Afghanistan and Pakistan are reluctant to provide safe haven for the hijackers in return for the release of the passengers.

One hundred and fifty-nine passengers were on board the hijacked plane yesterday on the runway of Kandahar airport, surrounded by heavily-armed Taliban militia. The hijackers threatened to kill the passengers and themselves if the Indian government refused to release the imprisoned Muslim militants.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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