- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 1999

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan Separatists negotiating with Indian officials over walkie-talkies stepped up their demands yesterday, insisting on $200 million and the release of 35 Kashmiri militants to end the five-day hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane.

The latest demands, which India's foreign minister announced in New Delhi, came as the hijackers' tempers were said to be rising and the A300 Airbus remained parked, shades drawn, at the airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

The plane's engines shut down for 12 hours yesterday, halting negotiations and leaving an opened door as the only ventilation for the 160 persons on board. An engineer was able to repair the plane before nightfall, when Kandahar's balmy daytime temperatures plummeted to below freezing.

Conditions have improved slightly aboard the plane, with reports that guards of Afghanistan's ruling Taleban were given permission to open the pipes of the toilets from outside and run a tube into the aircraft to flush out the air.

Taleban soldiers who have delivered food to the plane say the odor inside is strong and unpleasant, a sign that people have been sick. There were reports that the passengers have been forced to keep their eyes covered throughout the crisis.

Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh announced the latest demands in New Delhi yesterday, according to the Indian news agency, United News of India.

The announcement came three days after the hijackers told Afghanistan's ruling Taleban militia that they wanted a Pakistani religious cleric freed from an Indian jail along with several other Kashmiri fighters. Muslim militants have been waging an insurgency in Indian-held Kashmir, demanding either independence for the Himalayan state or union with Islamic Pakistan.

Until Monday, when the hijackers threatened to start killing passengers, India had refused to negotiate with them. The threat prompted New Delhi to send an aircraft to Kandahar with a seven-member negotiation team aboard as well as doctors, nurses, technicians and a replacement crew.

The negotiating team has held several sessions with the hijackers, using radios and walkie-talkies to communicate.

At one point, a masked hijacker left the aircraft and sat in a vehicle parked beneath the nose of the aircraft. Taleban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil told reporters the hijacker was insurance for the safety of an Indian engineer who boarded the damaged aircraft to repair it after the engines shut down.

Mr. Muttawakil said the Taleban has appealed to the hijackers for the release of women, children and the sick.

"We know there are some people who are in bad condition," Mr. Muttawakil said, but he didn't know the extent or type of illness. "We have asked them to let the sick, the women and children off the plane, but they have refused."

Medicines from the International Red Cross have been given on board to a doctor, who also is a passenger. The medicines are mostly to treat muscular pains from being confined for so long, pain killers and heart medicine, although the type wasn't mentioned.

Meanwhile, the hijackers were becoming increasingly agitated, said Erick de Mul, U.N. coordinator for Afghanistan upon his return to Pakistan from Kandahar.

Mr. de Mul, who spoke to the hijackers Sunday and Monday in Kandahar, said the hijackers "were lucid, they seemed rational. I would say their mood on Sunday was better than their mood on Monday [when] they were abrupt" and when they threatened to start killing passengers if their demands were not met.

"The longer it lasts, the level of irritation worsens," he said.

Officials who earlier talked to the pilot by radio said he made a desperate plea for help and sounded stressed, according to Rehmatullah Aga, a Taleban spokesman.

In addition to their demands for the release of prisoners, the hijackers also have insisted that India hand over the body of a Kashmiri fighter killed five years ago.

The Indian government, meanwhile, has come under heavy pressure from relatives and supporters of the hostages to bring an end to the crisis.

At least one hostage has been stabbed to death.

Indian officials have said there are five hijackers.

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