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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

160 Held on Indian Airliner in Afghanistan




KABUL, Afghanistan -- Hijackers who took an Indian Airlines jet to Afghanistan after a harrowing journey across Western Asia suspended a deadline Monday for meeting their demands as Indian officials began negotiations with the hostage-takers.


The captors spoke by radio to a junior Indian diplomat in Afghanistan's southern city of Kandahar, where the Airbus A300 with 160 passengers and crew was sitting on the tarmac. They agreed to suspend their deadline until the negotiators arrived, an Indian official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.


Enforcing a strict discipline with those on board, the hijackers have killed at least one man who, according to those released, disobeyed orders to keep their heads down between their legs and their eyes closed. The dead man was identified Saturday as Rupin Katyal, 25, who was returning with his wife from their honeymoon. They had been married on Dec. 3, according to reports from India.


The hijackers issued their first public demands Saturday, asking India to release a Pakistani religious leader identified as Maulana Masood Azhar and several Kashmiri fighters, all of whom are in Indian jails, said Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, Taliban spokesman.


Afghanistan's Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil said Monday that his government was losing patience and if Indian negotiators fail to get an agreement "we will use force to make the plane leave." He did not set any deadlines.


The Indian negotiators were speaking by radio to the hijackers from the control tower at the Kandahar Airport. There was no information about the contents of the talks.


"I hope it is resolved soon," said Erick de Mul, United Nations coordinator for Afghanistan, who also has been talking to the hijackers. "We hope the Indian delegation will stay here until this is solved."


Frustrated by India's refusal to send a negotiating team earlier, the Taliban had issued an ultimatum to the hijackers: release the passengers or leave Afghanistan. But the hijackers said there was a problem with the plane's fuel tank. The Taliban provided a technician to repair the damage.


Afghan officials said special commando troops were prepared to storm the jet if the hijackers carried out their threat to kill the passengers.


The commandos were deployed around the aircraft as the initial deadline approached but when it passed without incident they were removed, Rehmatullah Aga, a Taliban spokesman said.


"We warned the hijackers that if they take any action or kill anyone on our territory we are going to mete out similar treatment to them," he said.


On Sunday, the hijackers freed an ailing passenger as a "goodwill gesture" after speaking to de Mul by radio for about one hour the hijackers released the passenger, Aviation Minister Akhtar Manzoor said.


Anil Khurana, looking gaunt and tired, refused to speak to reporters and buried his head beneath a blanket when a photographer tried to take his picture at the Kandahar airport.


Khurana, a diabetic who had required medical treatment a day earlier, was the first passenger to be freed since the captors released 27 hostages and the body of Katyal during a stopover in the United Arab Emirates on Friday.


Khurana says he will not return to India until all the passengers and crew, including his brother, are released.


The plane was seized Friday on a flight from Nepal to India. It made stops in India, Pakistan and the U.A.E. before landing in Kandahar, headquarters of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia, on Saturday.


In a fax sent to news organizations in neighboring Pakistan, suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaida group denied any involvement in the hijacking and accused India of staging the event to malign the Taliban and Pakistan.


There was no independent confirmation that the fax - which appeared to have been written on Al-Qaida letterhead - was authentic.


The Indian negotiating team was among 30 people aboard an Indian Airlines jet that took off from New Delhi International Airport bound for Kandahar, A.R. Ghanshyam, the commercial counselor at the Indian High Commission in neighboring Pakistan, who was in Kandahar, told The Associated Press. Engineers and technicians and a complement of doctors and nurses were also on the plane, Ghanshyam said.


Taliban troops delivered food to passengers and reported that a foul stench pervaded the aircraft.


"It smells like people have been sick," said Mohammed Khiber, a civil aviation authority spokesman.


The shades in the plane remained drawn and the engines were running, Afghan officials said. There are reports that the passengers have been blindfolded throughout the four-day ordeal.


Indian officials have said there are five hijackers. Armed with grenades, pistols and knives, they seized the plane 40 minutes after it took off from Nepal heading for New Delhi, India, on Friday.


Moslem militant secessionists have been waging a bitter and protracted insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir, demanding either outright independence for the Himalayan state or union with Islamic Pakistan.


Azhar, who traveled to India in 1992 to help the militants, is from Bawahalpur in Pakistan's Punjab province. He was arrested in 1994 and is being held in a high security jail in Indian Kashmir.


A Moslem cleric, Azhar was the ideologue of the Harkat ul-Ansar, a group on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations.


In 1995, the organization tried to bargain for Azhar's freedom with the lives of five kidnapped foreign trekkers. One, a Norwegian, was found decapitated and the others are missing and thought dead.


India's government was under pressure from relatives and supporters of the hostages to free Azhar and do whatever necessary to avoid further casualties.


A meeting Monday of government officials and relatives erupted into an uproar of accusations and demands that the government meet the hijackers' demands.


The plane was carrying 178 passengers and 11 crew members when it took off Friday. The passengers included 150 Indians, eight Nepalese, one Canadian, one American, four Swiss, four Spaniards, one Belgian, one Japanese, one Australian, two French and an Italian. Four passengers were not listed by nationality.