Hijackers of an Indian jetliner demanded $200 million and the release of 35 more Kashmiri prisoners today as hostages confined on board for a fifth day got some relief when the plane's doors were opened to provide fresh air for the first time.
Indian negotiators reported no progress during a third round of talks with the hijackers, who have been holding the plane and at least 155 hostages at an airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan, since early Saturday.
"We will send an appropriate response through the negotiating team," Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh said tonight, after the cabinet met to discuss the developments. "In the meantime, let the country, and the international community too, reflect on this."
Earlier in the day, Singh said negotiators had appealed to the hijackers to release all women and children, but that, "so far they have not acceded."
Officials said Afghan authorities had warned the hijackers that they would storm the plane if any passenger was harmed. One Indian man was stabbed to death aboard the plane after it was seized Friday on a flight from the Nepalese capital Katmandu to New Delhi. No other hostages have been harmed, and 27 have been released.
The hijackers initially asked for the release of Pakistani militant Maulana Masood Azhar, who was jailed in India for his fight to separate the predominately Muslim Kashmir from Indian rule.
Although the additional demands seemed likely to set back the negotiations further, a U.N. spokesman in Islamabad said today that he still had hope the talks would succeed. "I can see and am hopeful that the talks will come to an end successfully and as quickly as possible," said the spokesman, Erick de Mul, after returning from Kandahar.
Relatives of the hostages, however, continued to express anger and impatience at what they called Indian authorities' slow and indecisive response to the crisis. On Monday relatives mobbed a government building here and were beaten back by police.
"Why can't we release a few terrorists to save the lives of 155 innocent people?" demanded Gaurav Sethi, the brother of one passenger. "The release of a couple of terrorists, I am sure, cannot worsen the Kashmir problem any further."
Meanwhile, the hostages were finally granted some relief from their increasing discomfort aboard the stranded Airbus A300. For the first time, doors were opened on the plane to provide fresh air, toilets were cleaned and a chute was opened to allow supplies to be brought on board.
Two Indian doctors and an engineer were also allowed on board, where several passengers were said to be cancer patients and diabetics. The plane reportedly has mechanical problems, and its auxiliary power was shut off, raising concern about hot and crowded conditions during the day and below freezing temperatures at night. Indian officials said engineers would repair the power supply, and Afghan officials provided temporary generators to restore light and climate control in the cabin.
Cooperation between Indian and Afghan authorities over the crisis continued to improve, even though the two governments are usually adversaries. Singh today repeatedly praised the Islamic Taliban regime for its help.
"I am gratified to report that the Taliban are fully cooperating with the relief team and also with the negotiating team," Singh told reporters. "We are appreciative of the stand taken by the Taliban." He said the hostages were "completely safe."
The Taliban are radicals whose country has often been used as a base for Islamic insurgency against India. Muslim insurgents seeking a separate state in Indian Kashmir have trained there, and some Afghan fighters have participated in their attacks against Indian forces in the disputed region.
The hijackers support the Kashmiri cause, and their principal demand has been the release of Azhar, a senior leader of Harkat ul-Mujaheddin, who has been imprisoned in Indian Kashmir since 1994. The United States has declared the group a terrorist organization.
Today the hijackers demanded the release of 35 more detained insurgents, and the return of the remains of one who died in a shootout during a prison break this year.
Taliban authorities, whose troops have surrounded the plane, have been providing food to the passengers and facilitating meetings over the past two days between the hijackers and a seven-member Indian negotiating team. Initially, the Afghans insisted that the United Nations step in and demanded that the plane leave Afghan territory.
"We have done our best to protect the passengers and met our moral obligations," Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil told a Pakistani news service. "Now the issue is between the Indian government and the terrorists."
In sharp contrast to the increasingly cordial dealings between India and Afghanistan, Indian and Pakistani officials continued to blame each other for causing the crisis. In New Delhi, Singh asserted that Harkat ul-Mujaheddin had been "formed and nurtured in Pakistan," and that the hijackers' chief concern is Azhar's release.
In Islamabad, meanwhile, a military spokesman rebuffed Indian allegations of Pakistani involvement in the hijacking, and suggested that India might have played the situation for political advantage. Brig. Rashid Qureshi told reporters it was "strange" that the hijacked plane had stopped for an hour in Amritsar, India, and then was allowed to leave.
India-Pakistan relations have been tense for months. The two countries fought a 10-week border conflict last summer in the mountains of Kashmir, and India has accused Pakistan of fomenting cross-border terrorism because of a dramatic upsurge in insurgent attacks in Kashmir.
Special correspondent Debdeep Chakraborty contributed to this report.
The hijacking drama unfolding in Afghanistan has once again brought Kashmir, an area spanning Pakistan and India, to world attention. Sovereignty over Kashmir was left unresolved when India and Pakistan became independent 50 years ago, and the two countries have fought two wars and countless skirmishes over the region.
The state of Jammu and Kashmir with 8 million people. Two-thirds of the population is Muslim while people in the rest of India are overwhelmingly Hindu.
The administrative areas Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas with a population of 2 million, almost all Muslim.
Pakistan does not recognize a 1947 treaty of accession with India made by the maharajah who ruled Kashmir prior to independence. This led to the first war in 1947, which resulted in a cease-fire line of separation. Renewed fighting in 1965 and subsequent years has produced little change.
India regards the entire Kashmir region as its territory.
Muslim separatists in India's Jammu and Kashmir state seek indepen-dence from India or union with Pakistan. The hijackers of the Indian Airlines jet are demanding the release of Pakistani Muslim cleric Maulana Masood Azhar, who traveled to India in 1992 to help militants there. He was arrested in 1994 and is imprisoned in Kot Balwal in Jammu and Kashmir.
SOURCES: Encyclopedia Americana, Political Handbook, staff reports.
CAPTION: Relatives of hostages aboard the hijacked Indian Airlines plane disrupt a briefing by airline officials in New Delhi. Many of them pressed India to grant the hijackers' demands.
CAPTION: A woman related to one of the hostages aboard the hijacked airliner, left, cries outside the prime minister's residence in New Delhi. At right, a man listens during the airline officials' briefing. The hijackers said they will not release any more passengers until new demands are met.