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December 29, 1999
Taleban's co-operation still suspect
Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
The nightmare of Flight IC-814 entered its sixth day today with little to show by way of progress in the talks between Indian negotiators and the hijackers. But there was some improvement in the condition of the passengers and crew.
The fourth round of talks between the government and the hijackers continued until late at night, with the government saying it had sent its replies to the hijackers' demands.
The hijackers had demanded the release of 36 militants, including Maulana Masood Azhar, $200 million, and the body of slain terrorist Sajjad Afghani. The latter two demands have, however, been dropped.
There is growing speculation about whether the government will consider military action since it is unwilling to set any of the prisoners free. Reporters asked External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh whether any such move was being planned, and got a rebuff, with Singh pointing out that the media could scarcely expect him to reveal any such plans in advance.
But the key to any operation is clearance from the Taleban. Jaswant Singh has time and again said the Taleban have been most co-operative and have promised to use their good offices to try and end the hijacking.
Yet, there is still some concern about whose side the Taleban are really on. Notwithstanding assurances given in Kandahar and Jaswant Singh's reiteration about their help, there remains a question mark on just how far they will go in helping India.
For instance, there is some concern at the way in which the Taleban announced that the hijackers had dropped the demand for $200 million and Afghani's corpse buried in Jammu.
The belief in government is that the hijackers dropped the demands under pressure from the Taleban. Taleban leaders are reported to have taken umbrage at the demand for money and a corpse, considering both un-Islamic. Shortly afterwards, the hijackers were reported to have dropped these demands.
"If it is true, it proves that the hijackers are still under the influence of the Taleban, and perhaps take at least some guidance from them. In that situation, their [the Taleban's] co-operation with India becomes suspect," government sources said.
India has not recognised the Taleban government, suspecting it of spawning Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism around the world, including in Kashmir. But the landing of the hijacked aircraft in Kandahar, headquarters of the Taleban, has forced India to open talks with them.
The Taleban, after two days of negotiations, declared full support to India and warned the hijackers against taking any precipitate steps. But in the diplomatic world, there are no free lunches and observers are wondering what price India will have to pay for the Taleban's help. The external affairs ministry is maintaining a stoic silence, saying the Taleban's help is on humanitarian grounds.
But the sources and observers do see clear gains for the Taleban. "The Taleban is desperate for recognition and legitimacy. After the hijacking, India will have no choice but to, at the minimum, deal with the Taleban on a higher level, maybe even recognise them," the sources said. Observers agree, pointing out that the Taleban is eager to re-enter the comity of nations.
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