Indian negotiators have offered to release jailed Kashmiri militants to gain the freedom of more than 150 hostages on a hijacked jet in Afghanistan, but talks are deadlocked concerning the issue of sanctuaries for the hijackers and the militants, Afghan officials and other sources said Thursday.
Taliban officials in Kandahar, where the hostages are entering their eighth day of captivity today, said the militant Islamic hijackers and Indian negotiators also are haggling about the number of guerrillas to be released.
Sources in Kandahar said the Indians have offered to free as many as eight guerrillas held in India, including Maulana Masood Azhar, a leader of a guerrilla group fighting to end Indian rule over the predominantly Muslim state of Jammu and Kashmir. The hijackers are sticking to their demand that the Indians release 36 of their comrades.
“They are still negotiating on the numbers of prisoners,” said Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel, the foreign minister of Afghanistan’s Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime.
Indian officials in New Delhi declined to speak publicly for much of Thursday about the hostage crisis. They denied reports that there was an agreement to release militants.
Then, early today, Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh said he would leave for Kandahar to assist in negotiations with the hijackers.
“The negotiations are now extremely delicately poised,” Singh had said Thursday after an emergency meeting of the Cabinet.
The reports of progress in the talks capped a topsy-turvy day of high-stakes bargaining that nearly turned violent. In the morning, Taliban troops with rocket launchers, missiles and machine guns surrounded the Indian Airlines jet.
Taliban leaders called the deployment routine, but Indian officials in New Delhi said the soldiers were brought out when the talks seemed to be breaking down for good.
“It came to a situation of impasse, and there were some apprehensions of no further negotiations,” Singh said. “Additional security measures by the Taliban were then taken.”
No shots were fired, and talks between the hijackers and Indian negotiators began again over the aircraft’s radio. The hijackers temporarily freed an Indian cancer patient for 90 minutes to receive medical treatment, but he returned to the plane afterward.
The crisis began Dec. 24 when five hijackers seized Indian Airlines Flight 814 as it left the airport in the Nepalese capital, Katmandu. The terrorists forced the plane to land in three countries--India, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates--before finally touching down in southern Afghanistan. So far, the hijackers have freed 28 passengers, but they have threatened to kill the others if their demands are not met.
One of the biggest obstacles to breaking the eight-day impasse is finding countries that will take the released militants and the hijackers, who stabbed to death an Indian passenger on the first day of the ordeal. Officials in Afghanistan and in Pakistan--which many believe to be the home of the hijackers--have refused to accept them, according to Afghan officials.
“It is a stalemate situation,” a diplomat told Agence France-Presse in Kandahar. “No country is ready to accept the hijackers and the Kashmiri militants who are to be released.
“The hijackers are fresh and strong, but they miscalculated this bit and took it for granted that the Taliban would accept them,” the diplomat added.
Taliban officials are adamant about expelling the hijackers. They have threatened several times to force the plane to take off again, and Thursday they said they wouldn’t allow the hijackers to stay in the country as part of a deal to release the hostages.
“Afghanistan will not give the hijackers asylum,” Mutawakel said in a telephone interview.
Muslim militants have been waging a violent campaign in Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, since 1989, seeking either independence or union with Pakistan. More than 25,000 people have died.
The hijacking appears to be the work of Harkat Ansar, a notorious guerrilla group that is blamed for the kidnapping of six Western hikers in Kashmir in 1995 and is now known as Harkat Moujahedeen. One of the captive hikers escaped, one was found decapitated, and the other four are missing and presumed dead. Azhar, the jailed militant whose release is sought by the hijackers, is a leader of the group.
One of the surprises of the hijacking has been the respect won by the Taliban for its role in trying to end the crisis. Only three countries in the world maintain diplomatic relations with the Taliban government, which has earned international scorn for its record of maltreatment of women and for human rights violations.
“Now the world is taking the Taliban more seriously,” a Western diplomat in Kandahar told AFP.
Rahimullah Yusufzai in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.