- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2000

KARACHI, Pakistan One of three Islamic militants freed as part of a deal to end the Indian Airlines hijacking called on his followers yesterday to destroy the United States and India.

Encircled by men dressed in camouflage-colored clothes and brandishing automatic rifles, Masood Azhar gave a fiery speech to 10,000 supporters who gathered in front of a central Karachi mosque.

"I have come here because this is my duty to tell you that Muslims should not rest in peace until we have destroyed America and India," Azhar said, vowing to liberate the embattled Kashmir region from Indian rule.

The crowd responded by screaming, "God is Great" and "Death to India, Death to the United States."

Azhar's arrival in Karachi from neighboring Afghanistan, where the eight-day hijacking ended Friday, was unannounced.

Though the Pakistani government earlier said that the hijackers would be arrested if they stepped foot in their country, there was no effort to detain Azhar or to bar him from speaking yesterday.

"I have come back, and I will not rest in peace until Kashmir is liberated," Azhar told the crowd, many of them members of his militant group, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen.

In Washington, State Department spokesman James Foley described Azhar's outburst as "deplorable and unacceptable" and repeated the U.S. position that the hijackers who won his freedom must be brought to justice.

A department official, who spoke on the condition he not be identified, said, "If any of these individuals appeals for attacks against the United States, we expect Pakistan would meet its responsibilities in acting to prevent any such attacks."

Azhar's group, one of the most radical groups fighting in Indian-ruled Kashmir, is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations and was responsible for the kidnapping of six foreign tourists while they were trekking in the region in 1995.

The body of one man, Hans Christian Ostro of Norway, was found beheaded, and another body found in 1997 was identified through DNA yesterday as that of Paul Wells, a British member of the trekking group. Four others, including one American, are still missing.

Last month, five hijackers armed with grenades, pistols and knives, seized Indian Airlines Flight 814 during a scheduled flight from Katmandu, Nepal, to New Delhi. The hijacked plane made stops in India, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates before landing in Afghanistan.

To secure the release of the 155 hostages, India agreed to release Azhar, along with two other jailed Kashmiri militants.

The whereabouts of the other two Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, an Indian Kashmiri, and Ahmed Umar Saeed Sheik, a Pakistani-born British citizen was not clear yesterday.

Azhar, his head wrapped in a checkered scarf, said the five hijackers were all Indian Kashmiris and had returned to Kashmir, the disputed territory divided between India and Pakistan.

"They are preparing for their next assault," he said without elaborating. When the speech ended, bodyguards with Kalashnikov automatic rifles whisked him into a truck and sped off.

Pakistan said after the hijacking that its border security was put on alert and the hijackers would be arrested if found, a difficult task given the length of the border and the multitude of access points from Afghanistan.

The hijackers have not been seen since they left the airport in southern Afghanistan with Azhar and the two other freed prisoners. But to reach Kashmir over land, they would have had to travel across Pakistan.

The three militants are Kashmiri activists opposed to Indian rule in Kashmir, which has been the source of decades of conflict. Both countries lay claim to the entire territory.

Azhar and Sheik had been in Indian jails since 1994, although neither had reportedly been formally charged. Azhar, a Pakistani Islamic cleric and a radical ideologue, was jailed for trying to unite several of the Kashmiri rebel groups.

Pakistan previously said Azhar, whose father is a retired school teacher from Punjab province, would be allowed to return to his homeland because he did not face any charges at home.

Since the hijacking ended, India and Pakistan have exchanged bitter accusations. India says Pakistan orchestrated the drama, a charge vehemently denied by Pakistan.

Pakistan's military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf on Tuesday said India was launching a propaganda campaign against his country to deflect criticism over how New Delhi handled negotiations with the hostage-takers.

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