The five hijackers of an Indian Airlines jet and three newly freed Islamic insurgents have fled Afghanistan across the loosely guarded border with Pakistan, making their escape hours after a deal was reached Friday to end the eight-day hijacking, Afghan and Indian officials said today.
The officials said the hijackers and the three insurgents--who were released from jail by India as part of a bargain that freed 155 hostages aboard the plane--went to Pakistan even though the Islamabad government had refused them asylum. The eight men were said to have gone toward the city of Quetta, about a two-hour drive from the Afghan border.
Pakistan, however, denied that the men had entered its territory and said it would seek to arrest them if they did. The reported escape led to a renewed round of accusations by India that the Pakistani government had orchestrated the hijacking. While the identity of the hijackers remains unclear, Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh asserted today that the five were Pakistanis. He did not say how he knew this but vowed that "India will continue to seek justice."
Pakistan denied India's charges. "Pakistan is on high alert, and in case they enter Pakistan territory, they will be apprehended and tried [according to] established international rules," Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider said, according to the Associated Press.
The hijackers apparently were Islamic activists committed to advancing efforts to end Indian control of its part of the Himalayan region of Kashmir, long the object of dispute between India and Pakistan. India is predominantly Hindu, whereas Kashmir, like Pakistan, is largely Muslim. At least two of the three men whose freedom the hijackers obtained had played a role in the 10-year-old armed Islamic movement to end Indian rule in Kashmir.
Singh said in New Delhi that he had received a statement from the Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia saying that "all five hijackers, along with the three terrorists, have left for Quetta. They left Kandahar [Friday] night."
Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil told journalists today, "I believe they have left Afghanistan." He did not give any details, but later in the day Taliban spokesman Rehnatullah Aga said that a Taliban official who had accompanied the hijackers as a hostage "has come back to Kandahar, and [the hijackers] have gone from the country."
The hijacking drama, which began Dec. 25 when five men commandeered the Indian jet as it was en route from Katmandu, Nepal, to New Delhi, ended peacefully Friday when the hostages aboard the plane were exchanged for the three prisoners. As the freed passengers and Indian Airlines crew members were flown back to New Delhi, the hijackers and the freed prisoners were given 10 hours to leave Afghanistan and were told they could seek asylum at foreign consulates and international agencies in Kandahar.
Pakistan maintains the only active consulate in the city, but its government had said it would not accept the hijackers. However, Afghans and Pakistanis can cross the border freely by many routes, including the Quetta highway, without being checked.
Today, most traces of the hijack drama were gone from the empty Kandahar airport, which was crammed Friday with hundreds of diplomats, journalists, U.N. representatives, Indian negotiators, Red Cross aides and officials of the Taliban, the radically conservative Islamic faction that controls most of Afghanistan.
The Indian Airlines Airbus A300 that had sat on the runway since early Dec. 25 was flown to New Delhi this morning after being checked for explosives, and the Taliban tanks and other armored vehicles that had surrounded it for the past several days were seen chugging back to their depots. There had been reports that the hijackers had killed one of their accomplices aboard the aircraft, but Singh said today that no body was found.
Erick de Mul, the chief U.N. representative in Afghanistan during the crisis, returned today to his office in Islamabad. He said he was inclined to believe the Taliban's statement that the hijackers had left the country, given their adamant insistence that the gunmen would not be granted asylum. "They seemed fairly determined on that score," he said. "I think they probably left, but they can hardly evaporate. They will turn up someday, somewhere."
In New Delhi, the freed passengers--most of them Indians--were greeted with jubilant relief by relatives and friends. The only American hostage, Jeanne Moore of Bakersfield, Calif., was in good health, said U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Elizabeth Corwin. "We were scared a lot; we never knew what was going to happen to us," Moore, a special education teacher, was quoted as saying by the Los Angeles Times. "It was a very interesting study in people."
Indian officials braced for more criticism of the deal. "This act of the government is like a shot in the arm for the terrorists," a senior army official told the Indian Express newspaper. "Once they get away with holding people to ransom, they will do it again."
A senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the English language daily Hindu: "Release of three militants is as good as assuring the sacrifice of 1,500 soldiers" in Kashmir.
In Indian Kashmir--where tens of thousands of people have died in a war between Islamic insurgents and Indian security forces and where the presence of thousands of Indian troops is widely resented--many people were gratified that the hijackers had forced India to accede to part of their demands.
"New Delhi Surrenders at Kandahar," read one headline in an Urdu-language newspaper Friday in Srinagar, a major city in Indian Kashmir, and a number of columns and editorials followed suit. Still, there did not seem to be much public identification either with the hijackers or the freed insurgents.
The hijackers had first demanded the freeing of just one prisoner in Kashmir, a Pakistani Muslim cleric and guerrilla leader named Maulana Masood Azhar. Then they raised their demands to 36 insurgents plus $200 million before finally agreeing on the release of the three jailed insurgents.
Azhar, who had been in prison in Kashmir since 1994, has been described as a devout religious scholar who prayed five times a day in prison and healed his fellow inmates of ailments. He also has been identified as second in command of a Pakistan-based guerrilla group, Harkat ul-Mujaheddin, that has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States.
A second freed prisoner, Mushtaq Ahmad Zarzar, was described today in Kashmiri newspapers as the commander of a militant group called Pro Pakistan al Umar Mujaheddin. He was arrested in 1991 and charged with numerous crimes, including murder.
Zarzar was taken from the central jail in Srinagar on Dec. 24 and flown to New Delhi and then Kandahar along with Azhar and a third prisoner, a British citizen named Omar Sikh about whom little is known.
Special correspondent Debdeep Chakraborty in New Delhi contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Freed hostages thank Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, left, and Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh for their help at New Delhi reception.
CAPTION: Released American hostage Jeanne Moore, in wheelchair, arrives at New Delhi airport Friday after she and 154 others who had been aboard the hijacked plane for eight days were flown from Kandahar.