- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 1999

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan Indian negotiators moved yesterday to end a harrowing, four-day standoff, flying to Afghanistan and opening talks with hijackers who threatened to start killing people aboard a parked Indian Airlines plane.

Late into the night, the negotiators spoke with the hijackers over radio from the air-traffic-control tower at Kandahar Airport in Afghanistan, Indian news agencies reported, quoting unnamed government officials.

[The talks resumed early today, Indian officials said.

["We are discussing all issues," an Indian diplomat at the airstrip told Reuters news agency. He declined to give further details.

[U.N. official Erick de Mul, who had been talking to the hijackers since the weekend, was not present for the latest phase of the negotiations, witnesses said.]

The content of the discussions was not immediately known. The hijackers are demanding that India release from prison several Kashmiri militants and a Pakistan-born Kashmiri activist. Muslim militants have been waging an insurgency in Indian-held Kashmir, demanding either independence for the Himalayan state or union with Islamic Pakistan.

The talks came as conditions have deteriorated for the 160 passengers and crew members who have been held aboard the Indian Airlines plane since Friday, many believed to be honeymooners returning from Nepal. Taleban soldiers who have delivered food to the plane say the smell inside is rancid, a sign that people have been sick.

"The situation for the passengers is getting worse," said Rehmatullah Aga, a spokesman for Afghanistan's ruling Taleban militia. "They are tired and tense, and the hijackers are becoming agitated."

The A300 Airbus continued to be parked in an isolated area on a tarmac. The shades remained drawn and the engines were running, Afghan officials said. A battered and abandoned luggage trolley sat tucked under one wing of the plane. There are reports that the passengers have been forced to keep their eyes covered the entire time.

Black smoke billowed skyward from the small fires that Taleban soldiers stationed near the plane had set to keep themselves warm as temperatures hovered near freezing at night.

The seven-member negotiating team arrived yesterday from New Delhi, accompanied by doctors, another cockpit crew and relief supplies.

"I hope it is resolved soon," said Mr. de Mul, the United Nations' coordinator for Afghanistan, who also has been talking to the hijackers about humanitarian concerns. "We hope the Indian delegation will stay here until this is solved."

Once India announced that it would send negotiators, the hijackers suspended a deadline for their demands to be met set for yesterday but warned they would start executing passengers if the talks broke down.

Officials who earlier talked to the pilot over the radio said he made a desperate plea for help and sounded deeply stressed, according to Mr. Aga.

Peter Iseli, an International Red Cross spokesman at the airport, said there is one doctor among the hostages, and the Red Cross has supplied him with medicine to treat his fellow passengers for minor ailments and stress.

"We are sending in basic medicines that you would expect in a situation like this, medicines for muscular pain because people have been sitting for so long, for headaches, nausea and stress," he said.

Inside the airport's domed terminal, diplomats from Switzerland, Belgium, Italy and Spain, huddled together, refusing to talk to reporters.

Indian officials have said there are five hijackers. Armed with grenades, pistols and knives, they seized Flight 814 some 40 minutes after it took off from Katmandu, Nepal, on a scheduled flight to New Delhi on Friday. It made stops in India, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates before landing in Afghanistan on Saturday.

At least one hostage has been killed. Passengers who had been released said the hijackers stabbed Rippan Katyal after he disobeyed their orders not to look at them.

One passenger, an Indian identified as Anil Khurana, was released on Sunday. Mr. Khurana, a diabetic, was the first person released since the captors freed 27 hostages and unloaded Mr. Katyal's body during a stopover in the UAE.

The hijackers have demanded that India release Maulana Masood Azhar, a Pakistani religious leader, and several Kashmiri fighters.

Azhar, who traveled to India in 1992 to help the militants, was arrested in 1994 and is being held in a high-security jail in Indian-held Kashmir.

A Muslim cleric, Azhar was the ideologue of the Harkat ul-Ansar, a group on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations. The group is believed to have its training camps in Afghanistan.

The Indian government was under heavy pressure from relatives and supporters of the hostages to free Azhar and do whatever is necessary to avoid further casualties.

Asked about the demand to release Azhar, Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh said India had only indirect reports of the hijackers' position and declined to say whether the government would consider that demand.

"We want to find out exactly what they want directly," he said. "Our primary concern is the early termination of the hijacking, the safety and welfare of the passengers and crew, and above all, the interest of the nation."

The plane was carrying 178 passengers and 11 crew members when it took off Friday.

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