Hijackers Vanish Into Afghan Desert
By Kathy Gannon
Associated Press Writer
Saturday, Jan. 1, 2000; 12:50 p.m. EST
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan –– The five hijackers of an Indian Airlines plane vanished into the desert of southern Afghanistan and by this morning had crossed the border into a neighboring country, according to a Taliban official.
The hijackers presumably went to Pakistan, the nearest country and the only one they could easily reach within the 10 hours they were given to get out of Afghanistan under a deal struck Friday afternoon.
Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh said today that the five hijackers were Pakistanis – though he gave no information about how Indian officials learned the nationalities of the hijackers, who wore masks.
The tense eight-day standoff ended with the deal Friday in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. All 155 hostages were freed and were flown to New Delhi, India.
The hijackers sped out of the airport in several vehicles, taking three Muslim militants freed from Indian jails and one hostage – a soldier from Afghanistan's ruling Taliban movement.
"The Taliban hostage has come back to Kandahar and (the hijackers) have gone from the country," Taliban spokesman Rehnatullah Aga said today.
Aga declined to say where the hijackers went, but the only realistic possibility was that the group drove for several hours to the border with Pakistan, where there are countless places to cross the frontier on foot.
Singh said an Afghan official had revealed that the hijackers headed for southwestern Pakistan.
"I have with me a statement of the Taliban information minister that all five hijackers, along with the terrorists, have left for Quetta, Pakistan," Singh said. However, the name he gave was not the information minister, but a lower level spokesman for the Taliban.
Afghanistan's ruling Taliban officials have said that the agreement to free the hostages involved not revealing where the hijackers had gone. Taliban officials insisted today that they were sticking to the agreement after Singh made his comments at a press conference.
"I'm sure we will hear something in a few days," said Erick de Mul, the U.N. representative to Afghanistan. "I'm sure they will be spotted somewhere. They can't just evaporate."
The Taliban initially had been reluctant to get involved in negotiations with the hijackers, and when the crisis ended Friday, the movement hurried the men out of Afghan territory, sending an armed group of soldiers with the hijackers.
Pakistan strongly denounced the hijacking, but it has little control over its western border, which may have been used as an escape route.
Taliban authorities said they did not know the names or nationalities of the hijackers, though they acted in support of Kashmir militants who are fighting to end Indian rule of the Himalayan territory.
The hijacking demonstrated the volatile nature of the long-running dispute over Kashmir, the leading source of friction between India and Pakistan. Both nations hold part of Kashmir and claim all of it.
India and Pakistan traded recriminations during the latest hijacking crisis, placing further strain on already bad relations.
Singh said today that the hijackers had wired the plane to explode and may have kept rifles, pistols and grenades in the cargo hold "from the beginning." He did not elaborate.
Another pilot who flew the hijacked plane back to India said on television that departure was delayed "because there were explosives on board." But the hijacked plane's captain, Devi Sharan, told The Associated Press he did not know about any explosives.
The plane on which the hostages were held left the airport at Kandahar this morning and headed back to India after authorities had completed repairs and checked for any potential problems.
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