The hijackers of an Indian Airlines jet dropped two of their key demands--a $200 million ransom and the return of a Kashmiri rebel fighter's body--after Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia convinced them Wednesday that the requests violated the tenets of Islam.
A possible breakthrough on a third demand--the release of 35 Kashmiri militants and a Pakistani cleric from Indian jails--was reported early today. Diplomats said that Indian negotiators trying to end the seven-day hijacking crisis were willing to release some of the militants but that the two sides were haggling over the exact number.
The developments were the first major signs of progress in efforts to free the 155 passengers and crew aboard the plane grounded at the airport here. One hostage has been killed, and the hijackers threatened Monday to execute more unless their demands were met.
The breakthrough Wednesday came after the Taliban interceded at the request of the Indian negotiators, according to Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, the Taliban's foreign minister.
The Taliban convinced the hijackers that their ransom demand went against Islam, as did the idea of removing a body from its burial ground.
"In fact, the Taliban see the whole process of hijacking and holding people for ransom as against Islam," Muttawakil added.
Despite the progress, Muttawakil warned Wednesday that the Taliban's patience was wearing thin.
"If the two sides are unable to solve their problems soon, the Taliban will force the hijackers to leave Afghanistan," Muttawakil said. He did not say how the Taliban would make them leave, or when.
Indian negotiators opened talks with the hijackers Monday, four days into the ordeal. Negotiations are being conducted by radio between Indian negotiators in the airport's control tower and the hijackers in the aircraft where the hostages are being held.
Today, diplomats in contact with the negotiators said India was willing to release some prisoners but the hijackers would not budge from their demand that all 36 men in question, including cleric Maulana Masood Azhar, be freed. The diplomats, whose nationals are among the hostages, declined to be identified, saying they feared it could compromise the negotiations.
Muttawakil confirmed that negotiations centered on the number of militants who could be freed. But this morning, Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Raminder Singh Jassal told Reuters news agency in New Delhi that there was no agreement on releasing prisoners.
As talks continued, conditions reportedly had improved slightly aboard the plane. Taliban soldiers who boarded the aircraft Tuesday to clean it reported that passengers were relaxed and were playing cards, chess and board games. The toilets were cleaned and heaps of garbage removed, said one Taliban soldier who asked not to be identified by name.
Muttawakil said the Taliban had appealed to the hijackers to release women, children and sick people, but they refused. Two passengers who are doctors have received medicine, including painkillers and heart medication, from the International Red Cross.
The Red Cross and United Nations have erected emergency medical tents near the plane to be ready when the ordeal ends.
The standoff is related to unrest in Kashmir, a Himalayan region divided between India and Pakistan. Muslim militants have been waging an insurgency in Indian-held Kashmir, demanding independence for the Muslim-majority region or union with Pakistan. India is majority Hindu.
India has come under heavy pressure from relatives of the hostages to end the crisis. Most of the hostages are Indian, although one is Canadian and Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy said that negotiators should agree to the hijackers' demands if necessary.
"You hate to give in to terrorism because they are using intimidation tactics," Axworthy said in Ottawa. "But ultimately, the bottom line has to be the safety and security of people."
Indian officials have said there are five hijackers. Armed with grenades, pistols and knives, they seized Flight 814 on Friday after it took off from Nepal on a flight to New Delhi. It stopped in India, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates before landing in Afghanistan on Saturday.
The captors freed 27 hostages in the United Arab Emirates. One more passenger, a diabetic, was released Sunday.