A hijacked Indian Airlines jet low on fuel landed in southern Afghanistan this morning, the second day of a horrifying journey of takeoffs and landings across two continents in which at least one person onboard--and perhaps as many as five--was killed.
Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia told wire services the hijackers had requested political asylum, but were turned down. India urged the Taliban to allow the Airbus 300 to stay put because of pilot fatigue after crisscrossing southeast Asia and the Middle East for 18 hours.
"Indian Foreign Ministry authorities have told us not to allow the plane to take off because then it will not be known where it goes," a Taliban official told Reuters at the Kandahar airport where the plane had landed.
The official, who asked not to be identified, also said that airport workers who delivered food and water to the plane saw four bodies. One body was removed from the plane earlier during a stop in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), when 27 of the 189 people on board were released in exchange for food and fuel. The Afghan Islamic Press, which has close contacts with the Taliban, reported that a request to allow more people to leave the plane in Kandahar was denied.
Indian Airlines Flight IC814 was seized by a group of five men, reportedly armed with guns, knives and hand grenades, about 35 minutes after the plane took off from Katmandu, Nepal, and entered Indian airspace Friday morning en route to New Delhi.
The demands and final destination of the hijackers remain unclear, but UAE officials said while the plane was in their country during one of its forced stops that two of the men wore turbans and appeared to be Sikhs. India's junior aviation minister, Chaman Lal Gupta, said a telephone caller identifying himself as a member of the Islamic Salvation Front claimed responsibility for the hijacking and demanded the release of three militants from Indian jails. He said Indian officials had established telephone contact with Kandahar airport. Another Indian government leader said the hijackers are demanding the release of two Kashmiri militants. Kashmir is India's only Muslim-majority state.
A Taliban spokesman told CNN that the plane was allowed to land in Kandahar because it was running short on fuel. "The Indian authorities have been in touch with our embassy and said, 'Please allow the plane to land in Kandahar.' The pilot is very tired, they told us," Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, the Taliban foreign minister, said in a telephone interview from Kabul, Afghanistan's capital.
Militant Sikhs, whose religion is rooted in Islam and Hinduism, have periodically waged violent assassination and bombing campaigns against the Indian government in the last two decades. The number of attacks has declined in recent years after government crackdowns.
"They came in with pistols, knives and some of them had hand grenades. They blindfolded us and said: 'Don't move otherwise we will shoot you,' " said one passenger who was among 25 men, women and children released during the five-hour stop in Dubai. That passenger and another, both Indian men in their sixties or seventies, told wire services they were blindfolded and ordered to keep their heads between their knees.
It was also in the UAE that the body of a man who authorities later said had been stabbed to death was removed from the plane, adding a chilling note of violence to a tense and bizarre odyssey.
Earlier, Indian officials had quoted a crew member as radioing that the hijackers told the pilot they had killed four people on board and wounded five more. UAE Information Minister Abdallah bin Zayid confirmed that some released passengers had been injured.
The plane landed in India, Pakistan and a military base near Dubai in the UAE before reaching Kandahar--its eighth takeoff or landing during the ordeal. Virtually all of the passengers on the plane are Indian, including several couples returning from their honeymoons, the Times of India reported. Friends and relatives had already begun gathering at a New Delhi airport to greet them on their return when news of the hijacking was announced, the paper said.
"The kids insisted they would fly together to Katmandu on their honeymoon," Jaswinder Singh said of his son Ranjinder and daughter-in-law. "It is the first time my son has taken a flight."
The plane was hijacked shortly after leaving the Nepalese capital of Katmandu en route to New Delhi at 4:55 p.m. local time (5:55 a.m. EST). The plane first tried to land in Lahore, Pakistan, but was denied permission by the government. The hijackers then forced the aircraft to land in the western Indian city of Amritsar, where it spent 40 minutes on the ground.
Nearly out of fuel, the plane then returned to Lahore, where it made an emergency landing, said Pakistani airport officials. The Pakistani government gave the hijackers food and allowed the aircraft to refuel.
Upon leaving Lahore, the plane headed toward Afghanistan's capital, Kabul. However, Afghan authorities told the pilot it was impossible to land safely in the country at night, according to a Taliban official.
The aircraft then tried to land in Muscat, the capital of the Persian Gulf country of Oman, but was refused permission. The plane then went to a military base southeast of the UAE city of Dubai.
The plane was carrying 178 passengers and 11 crew members when it left Katmandu.
1. Indian Airlines Flight 814 departs for New Delhi
2. Plane is hijacked upon entering Indian airspace
3. Hijackers refused permission to land at Lahore, plane then lands in Amritsar to refuel, then flies to Lahore
4. Plane fails to land due to lack of landing lights
5. Plane flies to air base near Dubai