Fri, Jan 07, 2000 - Page 1 News List

India claims it has proof hijackers were Pakistanis

AGENCIES , NEW DELHI AND KARACHI, PAKISTAN

India has arrested four accomplices to the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane and obtained proof that all the hijackers were Pakistani nationals, officials in New Delhi said.

Home Minister L.K. Advani said yesterday that four activists of the Kashmiri Muslim separatist group Harkat-ul-Ansar -- two of them Pakistanis -- were arrested "five or six days" after the Indian Airlines Airbus was hijacked on Dec. 24. One passenger was murdered in the drama.

Along with the two Pakistanis, one of those arrested was from Nepal and the fourth an Indian from Bombay.

"With the help of these four, the [Indian] investigators have been able to identify all five hijackers," Advani said.

The minister said all the hijackers were Pakistanis, naming them as Ibrahim Akhtar, Shahid Akhtar Sayeed, Sunni Ahmed Qazi, Mistri Zahoor Ibrahim and Shaqir.

He said the accomplices had given the Indian authorities photographs of the hijackers.

"We showed them to the crew and passengers, who identified every single one of them."

Five armed Muslim militants hijacked the Indian Airlines plane with 189 people on board shortly after it took off from Kathmandu for New Delhi on Christmas eve.

The aircraft was forced to fly to Amritsar in northern India, Lahore in Pakistan and Dubai before it landed at Kandahar in Afghanistan on Dec. 25.

The hijackers released the hostages on Dec. 31 after India freed three jailed pro-Kashmiri Muslim militants.

Since then, the hijackers' whereabouts have become a source of conjecture.

Yesterday, however, two of the freed militants made public appearances in Pakistan.

One of the militants, religious cleric Maulana Masood Azhar, told journalists he had last seen the hijackers on the road from Kandahar heading toward Pakistan. He disputed India's claim that the hijackers were Pakistanis, claiming they had told him they were Indian nationals.

During a press conference in Karachi, the bearded and spectacled Azhar provided the first eyewitness account of what happened after the blackened-window vehicle carrying the five hijackers and the three freed militants roared out of Kandahar airport on Dec. 31.

"The hijackers said, `You don't know us. We have never met. We are from India and we respect you and admire you but we cannot take off our masks,"' Azhar recalled.

Azhar, who had been in an Indian jail since 1994, said the hijackers wept, embraced him and said, "We have done this for the cause of Islam."

The hijackers parted company with the freed militants in Afghanistan. The hijackers remained with Azhar and his companions for 25 minutes in a vehicle that was heading in the direction of Pakistan. Then they stopped the vehicle, got out and got into another vehicle, Azhar said.

It was also then that they freed their Taliban hostage, whom they had taken to guarantee their safe passage out of the airport.

"They said, `We are returning to India but we can't travel with you. We will get there another way,"' Azhar said.

Pakistan said its border security had been put on alert, but Azhar said there was no attempt by border police to stop his vehicle.

"I am a Pakistani citizen who has done nothing wrong. There is no reason to stop me," Azhar said. He parted company with the two other freed militants after crossing into Pakistan.

He said he didn't know where either was headed.

Azhar said he was arrested by India in 1994 after crossing into Indian-ruled Kashmir, and was ordered released by an Indian anti-terrorist court a year later, but India ignored the order.

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