In the hours after Indian Airlines Flight 814 landed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, the Taliban's chief representative in the United States, called U.N. headquarters in New York and asked for help in negotiating an end to the hostage crisis.
"They told us they don't have this kind of experience," Mujahid said.
At a time when Secretary General Kofi Annan is seeking greater authority to intervene in civil conflicts around the world, he has charted a decidedly conservative course in responding to the now five-day-old crisis, leaving mediation to a team of Indian negotiators. Concerned that the crisis could engulf it in a regional diplomatic dispute involving Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, the United Nations has limited its role to providing humanitarian assistance.
"The U.N. doesn't want to set a precedent of being the organization that everyone turns to for hostage negotiation," said a European diplomat, explaining the world body's reticence. "The United Nations can be too easily manipulated by a host of factions from Cyprus to Congo who are seeking to achieve their own political objectives."
In fact, the United Nations has more experience negotiating hostage releases than most countries, and it maintains a team of trained negotiators ready to act at a moment's notice.
Ever since U.N. diplomat Giandomenico Picco of Italy initiated secret talks with Iran in the late 1980s to secure the freedom of American hostages in Lebanon, the United Nations has routinely negotiated on behalf of kidnap victims with armed factions from Sierra Leone to Bosnia, where hundreds of U.N. peacekeepers became virtual hostages of Bosnian Serb forces in the mid-1990s.
In Sierra Leone in August, the United Nations won the release of about 30 U.N. monitors, West African peacekeepers and journalists from a military splinter group seeking to use them as barter for food and medicine. It has also negotiated for the freedom of U.N. officials in Georgia, its breakaway region of Abkhazia and the northern Caucasus.
"The U.N. does it all the time," said Picco, who continues to advise the U.N. chief. "But they do it out of the limelight."
In Afghanistan, India made it clear to U.N. officials early on that it did not want it to strike any deals with the hijackers. As India began its second day of direct negotiations today, the United Nations moved into the background.
"Once the Indian delegation came in, we felt it was proper, logical and appropriate that we step into the shadows," U.N. diplomat Erick de Mul said as he arrived in Islamabad, Pakistan, after three days in Kandahar, according to the Associated Press.
Picco said the world body's bureaucratic aversion to risk-taking has also contributed to its desire to move to the sidelines. "Why get into trouble for no reason?" he said. "There is a sense in the U.N. Secretariat that you do not get involved if you don't have any cards to play in the negotiations." In this case, U.N. officials said, India appears to hold the only cards.
The hijackers, militants in the struggle to end Indian rule in predominantly Muslim Kashmir, are demanding $200 million and the release of 35 jailed Kashmiri militants, including Pakistani Maulana Masood Azhar, who has been imprisoned by Indian authorities in Kashmir since 1994.
CAPTION: U.N. official Erick de Mul returns to Islamabad after Indian negotiators took over talks with hijackers.