New Delhi: The Indian Airlines flight IC-814 hijackers were actively supported by Pakistan’s spy agency ISI, leaving them under no pressure to end the hostage crisis soon, according to national security adviser Ajit Doval, who was among those tasked as negotiator to defuse the crisis. The Kathmandu-Delhi flight, with 180 passengers and crew on board, was taken over by five hijackers soon after take-off on December 24, 1999, spiralling into one of the worst hostage crises in Indian history.
Doval said that if the Taliban hijackers did not have ISI support, India could have resolved the crisis. Doval’s comments are part of ‘Defeat is an Orphan: How Pakistan lost the Great South Asian War’, a new book by Myra Macdonald, former India bureau chief for Reuters. The crisis finally ended with the release of dreaded terrorists Maulana Masood Azhar, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and Mushtaq Zargar.
“There were a lot of Taliban on the tarmac with their weapons,” says Doval. The negotiating team made another discovery when they landed.
Two ISI men were on the tarmac and others soon joined them. One was a lieutenantcolonel and the other a major, said Doval, who had spent many years serving in Pakistan. To make matters worse, the Indian officials realised the hijackers were communicating directly with ISI officers in Kandahar.
“We were getting very good intelligence about all that was happening,” Doval says. With support from outside, the hijackers were far less susceptible to being worn down by negotiations writes Macdonald. “If these people were not getting active ISI support in Kandahar, we could have got the hijacking vacated,” Doval says.
“The ISI had removed all the pressure we were trying to put on the hijackers.” Even their safe exit was guaranteed, so they had no need to negotiate an escape route. “Normally that is not the way hijackers talk. Normally the biggest fear is how to get out,” he says in the book.
Doval goes on to outline how time was not on their side either. The then NDA government was under severe public pressure and was keen to end the hostage crisis before January 1. This put the negotiators on a tight deadline. Usually, writes Macdonald, it would be the hijackers who feared running out of time while trained negotiators remained calm, following an unofficial rule book put together from years of internationally pooled experience.
“In a normal hijacking, the stop-clock is for them,” says Doval, implying that it was New Delhi rather than the hijackers that lost its nerve. Doval describes the three released men as “ISI-sponsored terrorists”.