- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2000

U.S. officials yesterday reserved judgment on Indian charges that Pakistan was behind the Christmas Eve hijacking of an Indian airliner, refusing to join New Delhi's call to label its contentious neighbor a terrorist state.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee earlier asked the United States and other world powers to declare Pakistan a terrorist state, saying India had evidence that Pakistan was involved in the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has so far made no such determination about Pakistan, said one department official. But, the official said, the U.S. list of countries sponsoring terrorism is continuously under review.

The State Department must find that a nation has repeatedly provided support for international terrorist acts in order for it to be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.

Department spokesman James P. Rubin said yesterday there continue to be "conflicting statements about who is responsible for the hijacking and where the hijackers are. We … support a thorough police investigation," he said during a briefing in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

He continued: "The Pakistanis have told us that they condemn these acts of terrorism and that they will meet their obligations to apprehend the hijackers and bring them to justice."

India said Sunday its intelligence agencies had intercepted radio conversations between militant groups in Kashmir that confirmed Pakistan's involvement in the Dec. 24 hijacking of the Indian airliner en route from Nepal to New Delhi.

An Indian Embassy official in Washington said there were "very clear radio interceptions showing that the hijackers were not acting on their own."

"All reports indicate that the hijackers have gone back to Pakistan," the embassy official said.

Officials in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, yesterday rejected India's charges as "baseless" and said they exposed India's "prejudice and malevolence not to mention ingratitude for the cooperation of authorities extended throughout the hijacking crisis."

The eight-day standoff, which began on Dec. 24 and ended New Year's Eve, has aggravated tensions between the two nuclear states, both of which claim the Himalayan region of Kashmir.

In Kashmir yesterday, a land mine killed 17 persons and injured 31 at a vegetable market frequented by Indian security officers. The blast struck during midmorning as people were shopping or approaching a bus terminal across from the market outside Srinagar.

In Pakistani-held Kashmir, five civilians were killed by repeated Indian shelling, Pakistani officials said.

The five hijackers of the Indian Airlines flight were masked throughout the ordeal but demanded the release of the leader of a Kashmiri militant group and are believed to be Kashmiri militants.

Three men were released from Indian custody in exchange for the 155 hostages held aboard the plane which landed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, after a crisscross journey across South Asia and the Middle East.

The United States generally refuses to negotiate with terrorists but has not criticized India's decision to release the three powerful Muslims in exchange for the 155 hostages.

A State Department official would say only that it was a very hard decision for the Indian government to make.

Mr. Rubin said the United States is strongly urging that any and all states involved take action to ensure that the hijackers are captured and prosecuted. Otherwise they should "extradite the hijackers to a place where they can be apprehended and prosecuted."

The hijackers, given 10 hours to leave Afghanistan by the ruling Taleban militia, remain at large.

Pakistan promises to apprehend the hijackers if they cross their borders, but the lengthy border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is very difficult to monitor.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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