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December 30, 1999


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'We should not treat their warnings as empty threats'

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Y Siva Sankar

Erick de Mul, the United Nations Coordinator for Afghanistan who has been in touch with the Indian Airlines jet hijackers in Kandahar, has expressed confidence that the issue would be resolved in "couple of days".

De dul, who returned on Tuesday to Islamabad after the Indian negotiators got going in Kandahar, will fly back to join them on Thursday morning. "I will first find out how things are shaping up, whether the hostages are being properly fed," he said.

In a lighter vein, de Mul said he is hoping that this hijack crisis would not enter the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest-ever real-life thriller. "I am aware of a nine-day hijack," he pointed out.

(The longest hijack was in 1968 of an El Al flight for 40 days. The 1985 TWI crisis lasted 18 days. The 1988 hijack of Kuwait Airlines went on for 15 days while the PIA jet was taken for 13 days in 1981. The hijack of Air France aircraft in 1976 ended after eight days.)

What has he gathered from his interactions with the Taleban cadres in Kandahar? "People are anxious. The general feeling is that time is running out. There is impatience sometimes."

de Mul, who is among the very few people who directly interacted with the hijackers in Kandahar, spoke to from Islamabad. "The captain told me the hijackers are treating everyone well. But then, when he said that, the hijackers may been beside him....

"If necessary, they could kill the passengers, though they have not harmed anyone after taking off from Dubai. My impression is that they are well-trained and well-prepared people. They seem to be very determined too. I feel they are very committed people. We should not discard any possibility or treat their warnings as empty threats. We have to be very careful," he said.

de Mul said the arrival of diplomats from several countries in Kandahar is a good omen. "This will be helpful because their presence will lead to sustained discussions, balanced perspectives and quick and agreeable decision-making."

He denied that the UN "pulled out of negotiations" after the arrival of Indian officials in Kandahar. "The UN is not playing the negotiator. Our role is one for a humanitarian cause, to ensure the safety and welfare of the trapped passengers. Our understanding was that we would step back for a while so that the real parties involved -- the Indian government, the hijackers and the Taleban -- could proceed with some hard talk. We withdrew on Tuesday fully knowing that we will rejoin the peace process on Thursday," he said. "In this context, 'negotiations' mean for us our offer to transmit messages back and forth....

"There is absolutely no problem between the UN and the Indian team. We are acting in close co-operation. Only, people in Kandahar were anxious. One would have thought the Indian team arrived later than everyone had expected," he added.

Asked why the UN is not keen on playing an active role instead of confining itself to the "humanitarian cause", de Mul said the global body cannot assign itself such a task. "Our mission is not to play a mediator or a third party negotiator. We feel it is for the governments concerned to play a direct role. We also believe the Indian government is comfortable with the way the UN team has been conducting itself," he said.

He endorsed the Indian government's stance. "India is prepared to negotiate itself which is the right approach."

The official sought to dispel the impression that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is not showing enough concern in the crisis. "Mr Annan is very much concerned. The secretary-general's chief of staff, who is a close friend of mine, is in almost constant touch with me."

de Mul was very enthused about what he called "the day's good news" - the dropping of two demands by the hijackers. Asked what could have brought about the development, he said: "Well, I can't speculate. I could only hazard a guess. I feel the Taleban must have exerted enough pressure on the hijackers to make them discern what is proper and what is improper.... I'm also happy that negotiations between India and the hijackers and the Taleban are continuing in a cordial atmosphere. This make me optimistic, and gives rise to hope that the stalemate will end soon."

Referring to media reports that the UN is happy at the way the Taleban has conducted itself in the ongoing crisis, de Mul said this should not be construed as softening of its stance or that the Taleban regime has gained in legitimacy. "The UN has been in humanitarian efforts for a long time. They understand that. As it is, they are very few people whom they can turn to for help. They appreciate what the UN is trying to do in Kandahar. But I've to make one point. The Taleban authorities are very serious about this entire thing. They are not the hesitating types. They are very courageous...."

Asked if these traits make the Taleban cadres fit for a commando action in an emergency situation, de Mul replied in the negative. "When the Taleban say they would retaliate should innocent blood be spilled on their soil, I don't think they are hinting that they have special skills. There are plenty of countries around who have specialists possessing expertise in a flush-out-and-rescue operation. Should the need arise, they can always be flown in at short notice. This could be a possibility," he said.

de Mul also complimented the Pakistani authorities for their "co-operation". "They have been facilitating conveniences for us like clearance of flights to Afghanistan at short notice and so on." Asked why the Pakistan authorities are co-operative, he said: "Because to end the crisis is in everybody's interest." He also made it clear that the Indo-Pak relations, further strained over the hijack have had no adverse bearing on the UN operations.

On a personal note, de Mul told that he joined the UN in 1971. "I never had this kind of experience before though I worked in several countries. Thank God, this kind of thing happens very seldom. But one learns from every experience."

He said he had his most stressful moments on Monday, "the second day of the crisis in Kandahar". "The hijackers set a deadline and threatened to kill the passengers. Some touch-and-go moments passed before we could get to know the Indian government's response. Tension was growing all the while. I was afraid that something untoward would happen." How did he cope? "Well, basically I'm a calm person. I'm born like that, I guess. That helped."

Anything on the conflicting reports on the night-time weather at Kandahar? "The place does get extremely cold sometimes. Oh yes, temperatures do touch minus ten degrees Celsius. I was shivering, almost fell ill one night, even though I was wrapped in layers of blankets."

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