(This article was first published on 24 December 2015 and has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark the day 190 survivors from Indian Airlines Flight IC-814, which was hijacked on 24 December 1999, were released on 31 December 1999 at the Kandahar Airport, Afghanistan.)
On 24 December 1999, Indian Airlines Flight IC-814 from Kathmandu to New Delhi with 176 passengers and 15 crew on board members was hijacked.
Pakistan-based extremist group Harkat-ul-Mujahideen claimed responsibility and demanded the release of three terrorists held in Indian prisons. The then Atal Bihari Vajpayee government surrendered to their demands and Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh himself escorted the terrorists to Kandahar.
The Dreaded Terrorists
Masood Azhar went on to form the Jaish-e-Mohammad in 2000. The outfit was held responsible for the attack on Indian Parliament in 2001.
Omar Saeed Sheikh was held responsible for the abduction and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl, and had allegedly played a role in planning the 9/11 attacks.
Mushtak Ahmad Zargar has reportedly been training militants in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
The aircraft was hijacked at 17:30 IST while it was flying over Indian airspace. After hijacking, the aircraft first landed in Amritsar. It was then that the government was struck by paralysis, writes senior journalist Chandan Nandy, who observes that the government could have taken a decision to immobilise the aircraft in Amritsar, but developed feet of clay instead.
Amritsar, Dubai and Then Desolate Kandahar
After touching down in Amritsar, IC-814 flew to Lahore and then to Dubai where 27 of the 176 passengers were released but one was stabbed to death. It is reported that Indian authorities wanted to carry a commando style operation at the Dubai airport, but were denied permission by the UAE government.
The aircraft finally landed in Kandahar in Afghanistan. Kandahar, at the time, was controlled by the Taliban. Armed Taliban forces had surrounded the aircraft at the Kandahar airport. Some reports suggest that the Taliban, desperate for international recognition, wanted to play mediate between the hijackers and the Indian government. But India declined.
It was clear to the Indian authorities that the hijackers had the backing of the Taliban. Amid stiff domestic resistance, a team of officials led by the then MEA Joint Secretary Vivek Katju and RAW officials flew to Kandahar to carry out the negotiations, which were centred around securing the safe release of the passengers.
On 31 December 1999, the passengers were released after India swapped its prisoners.