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Freed Militants Arrive in Pakistan

January 6, 2000

KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) _ A week after India freed three Kashmiri militants to end the hijacking of an Indian Airlines jet, the whereabouts of the five hijackers are unknown and nuclear neighbors India and Pakistan are escalating their war of words.

The most prominent among those freed, Pakistani cleric Maulana Masood Azhar, said Thursday that the hijackers identified themselves as Indian nationals and refused to remove their masks even in the presence of the men whose freedom they had negotiated.

After India released the three men and guaranteed the five hijackers safe passage, the group left the airport in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar in a vehicle with blackened windows.

It was an emotional scene, Azhar recalled in giving the first eyewitness account of the disappearance of the hijackers on Dec. 31.

The hijackers wept and embraced the militants but would not take off their face coverings or fully identify themselves.

``The hijackers said ’You don’t know us. We have never met. We are from India and we respect you and admire you, but we cannot take off our masks,‴ Azhar recalled.

Since the hijacking, India and Pakistan have been trading barbs, with each accusing the other of involvement in the Christmas Eve hijacking of the Airbus A-300.

In India, Interior Minister L.K. Advani said all five hijackers were Pakistanis. Indian police arrested four members of Azhar’s militant Islamic group, Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen in Bombay on Dec. 30. According to Advani, the men said the hijackers were Pakistanis.

``Pakistan is neck-deep in this dirty game of hijacking,″ Advani said.

He said the four arrested gave police photographs of the hijackers, whom they had helped reach Nepal’s capital, Katmandu from where the plane was hijacked. After the hijacking ended, police showed the photos to the pilot and passengers, who confirmed that the five men were the hijackers, Advani said.

He said the government did not announce the arrests until Thursday because investigators were following up tips they gave.

A spokesman for Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen called the Indian assertions ``a pack of lies. Indians are trying to fabricate false evidence against our group, but they will not succeed.″

Considered one of the most radical of the Islamic groups fighting Indian troops in disputed Kashmir, Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen followers listened to Azhar in southern Karachi as he urged them to take up arms to destroy India and the United States.

Pakistan’s army-led government has condemned the hijacking and denied any involvement, saying the charges were being fabricated by the Indian government.

Azhar said the hijackers were clear about the motive for the hijacking. ``They said `We have done this for the cause of Islam,‴ he said.

Although the location of the other two freed Kashmiri militants _ Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, an Indian Kashmiri, and Ahmed Umar Saeed Sheikh, a Pakistani-born British citizen _ was unknown, Azhar said they crossed together into Pakistan before parting company. He said he didn’t know where either was headed.

Zargar’s group, Al-Omar Mujahedeen, denied earlier reports that he had arrived in the Pakistan-ruled part of Kashmir.

``He’s heading toward Indian-held Kashmir, but through some other way,″ said Naeem-ul Haq, head of the group. ``But since the day he was released we have been celebrating.″

Azhar said the hijackers and the freed militants separated in Afghanistan.

The group traveled together for 25 minutes, heading in the direction of Pakistan. At a desolate spot, the hijackers ordered the vehicle stopped, got into another vehicle and left. Azhar refused to say what direction they went.

``They said ’We are returning to India, but we can’t travel with you. We will get there another way,‴ Azhar said.

Pakistan had said its border security guards were on alert, but Azhar said there was no attempt to stop his vehicle at the border.

``I am a Pakistani citizen who has done nothing wrong. There is no reason to stop me,″ said Azhar.

India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, have fought three wars since independence in 1947 _ two over Kashmir _ and came close to a fourth war last summer.

Both India and Pakistan control parts of Kashmir but both lay claim to the whole region. India repeatedly accuses Pakistan of fighting a proxy war through Kashmiri separatists.

Update hourly