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December 29, 1999
'Passengers are playing cards, reading newspapers'
Three cleaners, who were permitted inside the hijacked plane last night at 2200 India time, have come back with good news. Mohammad Khibar, a senior civil aviation official at Kandahar airport, told rediff.com on the telephone this afternoon that the cleaners confirmed the safety of all passengers onboard.
They reported that the passengers were playing cards, chess and were being allowed to speak to each other. Some of them were reading newspapers.
''We lit up the Kandahar International Airport board when we saw that screens on some of the windows on the aircraft were drawn. Obviously, passengers have now been allowed to look out of windows...they now know that they are in Afghanistan,'' Khibar said.
The cleaners cleaned away papers, cans and napkins from the plane. However, they were not allowed into the cockpit, where one of the hijackers, identified as Ibrahim, was sitting. Other four hijackers patrolled the aisle as the maintenance staff went about its task.
''The cleaners said the passengers were looking pale,'' Khibar said, and added that it was understandable because they (the passengers) have had very little sleep in the last five days.
Khibar said there were unconfirmed reports of the Taleban asking the hijackers to take back their demand for money and the body of Sajjad Afghani, who died in an abortive jail-break attempt in Jammu on July 15.
He said the Taleban government was completely against all forms of terrorism. ''Afghanistan has been damaged enough and now we want to cease the fighting and get down to rebuilding our lives. This is why India and Afghanistan must work closely with each other.''
Khibar said his government had no option but to allow the hijacked plane to land in Afghanistan because it was running out of fuel.
''Later, we received a fax from the ministry of civil aviation in India requesting us to prevent the plane from taking off again. They also requested the Taleban to force the hijackers to surrender. We immediately surrounded the plane, but when the hijackers said they would start killing people we withdrew our forces,'' he revealed.
He asked rediff.com to communicate to the Indian government that the Taleban was taking good care of all the passengers. ''We will supply everything they need. Please tell everyone in India that everybody on board the hijacked plane is safe,'' the official said.
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