Hijackers' Terror Allies Gun Down Seven in Kashmir

By Popham, Peter | The Independent (London, England), December 29, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Hijackers' Terror Allies Gun Down Seven in Kashmir

Popham, Peter, The Independent (London, England)

YESTERDAY, ALMOST unnoticed among the blizzard of bulletins from the airport at Kandahar, where 155 passengers and crew were being held hostage on an Indian Airlines plane, came news that three Kashmiri militants said to belong to the fundamentalist Harkat-ul- Mujahedin, the same organisation as the hijackers, had stormed a paramilitary headquarters in Kashmir on Monday evening.

They took over the HQ and kept paramilitaries at bay for 24 hours. They traded gunfire all Monday night and most of yesterday and shot seven men dead. They were finally cornered and died in a hail of bullets yesterday afternoon.

Even with Maulana Masood Azhar, whose release the hijackers are demanding, locked in Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu, in the south of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the devotion to the cause which he inspires continues to haunt Kashmir. The man at the centre of the hijacking drama is short - about five foot - bearded, paunchy, bespectacled and with no discernible charisma.

"Sallow complexion, stout build, round face, protruding belly, eyebrows joined, thick lips," read the description in his interrogation report after his arrest six years ago. Prison officers described him as "religious and unpretentious" but "a hard nut to crack".

Mr Azhar is not physically prepossessing. And, though notorious as a terrorist, neither is he a fighting man.

At the Islamic University in Pakistan in around 1990 he enrolled for a week-long arms training camp for holy warriors, but decided he was cut out for a different role.

Yet the hijacking of flight IC814 on Friday was at least the third attempt by Mr Azhar's comrades to force India to set him free. British citizens were among victims in the first two attempts. In June 1994 Kim Housego and David Mackie, young Britons on holiday in Kashmir, were abducted by terrorists demanding Mr Azhar's release. After international lobbying, they were freed unharmed a fortnight later.

In July 1995 six foreign trekkers, including the Britons Keith Mangan and Paul Wells, were seized in Kashmir. One of them, a Dutchman, was later found decapitated, and the others have never been seen again. It is widely believed they must be dead.

Last night the hijackers increased their demands to include the release of 35 Kashmiri militants held in Indian jails and $200m (pounds 125m) and the return of the body of one of Mr Azhar's comrades killed by Indian forces. But Mr Azhar remained central to the resolution of the stand-off.

A native of east Punjab, Pakistan, his CV is fairly typical of Muslims at the cutting edge of the jihad to "liberate" Kashmir, which has been in progress for 10 years.

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