- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 1999

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan Indian negotiators trying to end a seven-day hijacking drama have agreed to release some Kashmiri militants but are haggling over numbers with the hijackers, diplomats said today.

The breakthrough comes one day after first progress in the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane with 160 people on board when hijackers dropped their demands for a $200 million ransom and the body of a Kashmiri militant.

But they are insisting on the release of 35 Kashmiri guerrillas in Indian jails as well as a Pakistani-born Kashmiri activist, also in jail in India, the diplomats told the Associated Press.

They said that Indian negotiators, who resumed talks today with hijackers, are willing to release some Kashmiri militants, but they are bartering over the number of prisoners to be released.

The diplomats, whose nationals are aboard the hijacked aircraft, said they were in constant contact with Indian negotiators. They declined to be identified, saying they feared compromising the negotiations.

"The Indian negotiators are talking to the hijackers about releasing some prisoners," one of the diplomats told the Associated Press.

But so far the hijackers are refusing to budge saying they want all 36 men freed from Indian prisons, he said.

Afghanistan's ruling militia yesterday brokered the first breakthrough in the talks, convincing the hijackers to drop their demand for a $200 million ransom and the body of a militant Kashmiri killed earlier this year.

Taleban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil said the hijackers, who have not been identified, were told that demanding a ransom and exhuming a body are against Islamic teachings.

"In fact, the Taleban see the whole process of hijacking and holding people for ransom as against Islam," Mr. Muttawakil told reporters yesterday at the Kandahar airport, where the Indian Airlines Airbus A300 is parked.

Indian negotiators resumed their talks today with the hijackers by radio from the control tower at the Kandahar airport.

The latest moves are seen as signs of progress as the Indian government works to save the hostages. One hostage has been killed, and the hijackers threatened two days ago to begin executing passengers unless their demands were met.

The International Red Cross and United Nations have erected emergency medical tents near the aircraft to be ready when the ordeal ends.

Mr. Muttawakil said yesterday that the Taleban's patience with the standoff is wearing thin.

"If the two sides are unable to solve their problems soon the Taleban will force the hijackers to leave Afghanistan," Mr. Muttawakil said. He did not say how the Taleban would make them leave or when.

The militia interceded at the request of the Indian negotiators, Mr. Muttawakil told reporters at the airport.

Indian negotiators opened talks with the hijackers late Monday, four days into the hijacking, after the hijackers threatened to start killing people. Negotiations are being conducted by radio, with the Indian negotiators inside the control tower airport and the hijackers inside the aircraft along with their hostages.

Conditions have improved slightly aboard the plane. Taleban soldiers who boarded the aircraft Tuesday to clean it reported that passengers were relaxed, seen playing cards, chess and board games. The toilets were cleaned and heaps of garbage removed, said one Taleban soldier who asked not to be identified.

Mr. Muttawakil said the Taleban have appealed to the hijackers for the release of women, children and sick people, but they have rebuffed. Two passengers who are doctors have received medicine, including painkillers and heart medication, from the Red Cross.

The standoff is related to unrest in Kashmir, a Himalayan region divided between India and Pakistan. Muslim militants have been waging an insurgency in Indian-held Kashmir, demanding either independence for the Muslim-majority region or union with Pakistan.

India has come under heavy pressure from relatives and supporters of the hostages to bring an end to the crisis. Most of the hostages are Indian.

One Canadian is among the passengers, and Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy said Tuesday that negotiators should agree to the hijackers' demands if necessary.

"You hate to give in to terrorism because they are using intimidation tactics to gain their ends for political reasons and for monetary reasons," Mr. Axworthy said in Ottawa. "But ultimately, the bottom line has to be the safety and security of people."

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.

Passengers who have been released said the hijackers stabbed passenger Rippan Katyal after he disobeyed orders not to look at them. The captors freed 27 hostages and unloaded Katyal's body during a stopover in the Emirates.

One more passenger, a diabetic Indian identified as Anil Khurana, was released Sunday.

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

The passengers included 150 Indians, eight Nepalese, one Canadian, one American, four Swiss, four Spaniards, one Belgian, one Japanese, one Australian, two French citizens and one Italian. Four passengers were not listed by nationality.

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