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December 26, 1999
Misinformation, delay led to hijackers getting away
Josy Joseph in New Delhi
Misleading initial information from Amritsar of indiscriminate firing inside the aircraft and a delay on the government's part in giving the go-ahead during those crucial hours resulted in the ill-fated Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 getting out of Indian airspace without a commando operation to end the hijack drama.
A senior Indian Police Service officer attached to a key security agency said the communication from Captain D Saran when the plane was at Amritsar's Raja Sansi airport said four passengers were killed. "What we deduced from information received from Amritsar was that the hijackers were heavily armed and that the passengers had been shot dead," he said. It has only now been confirmed by hostages who were released in Dubai that the passengers were knifed, and that the hijackers have only two pistols, two knives and a couple of grenades.
The plane was in Indian skies for about three hours after it was hijacked "and that is enough time for carrying out a crack operation", sources pointed out. The National Security Guard, an elite security agency comprising select personnel from the police, paramilitary and armed forces, has highly qualified teams for carrying out just such operations.
It may not be just the misleading communication given by the pilot on the hijackers' orders, but delay at the government's level as well that allowed the plane to get away from India. The high-powered Crisis Management Group took too long to decide, by which time the aircraft had taken off for Lahore. The NSG commandos reached Amritsar in their special aircraft about 50 minutes after Flight 814 had left.
The sources also insisted that if India wanted to carry out a commando operation, it was possible even at Dubai, where the plane landed at 0130 hours and stayed for almost three hours. The United Arab Emirates government, a friendly one, could have "well given us permission to carry out such an operation". But even then "we were not aware what arms the hijackers had", they said.
The sources also pointed out that carrying out such an operation against six men "could have been risky business, and would have had political repercussions". Senior Indian Police Service officers who have been connected with such operations in the past said, "Six is a large number, with risks of unexpected repercussions".
Meanwhile, as the government received confirmation that one of the hijackers is a brother of Maulana Masood Azhar, the Harkat-ul-Ansar terrorist now lodged in a Jammu jail, the fears of the intelligence agencies have been confirmed. Immediately after the hijack took place, sources in these agencies had claimed to suspect the hand of Islamic fundamentalist groups. Kathmandu is a nerve centre for ISI-backed militant activities against India.
Harkat-ul-Ansar is part of the pan-Islamic militant organisations that have active support from Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence and is believed to enjoy the trust of the Taliban and Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden.
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