WORLD

A riddle to the end

About 100 hijack hostages are finally released after two sweltering weeks

Peter Niesewand,Sean Toolan March 23 1981
WORLD

A riddle to the end

About 100 hijack hostages are finally released after two sweltering weeks

Peter Niesewand,Sean Toolan March 23 1981

A riddle to the end

WORLD

About 100 hijack hostages are finally released after two sweltering weeks

Peter Niesewand

Sean Toolan

An unexpected offer by Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad cleared the way Saturday for a merciful ending to the 13-day ordeal of 110 victims of the longest aircraft hijack in history. In a dramatic intervention, Assad offered asylum to the three hijackers, militant opponents of Pakistan’s President Zia ul-Haq, and 54 political prisoners flown out by Zia to prevent the murder of three Americans aboard the hijacked Boeing 707.

At week’s end it had seemed that the dissidents’ release had paved the way to a solution of the drama, which began on March 2 when the aircraft, with about 140 people aboard, was diverted to Kabul from its intended destination, the northwest frontier city of Peshawar. But a last-minute change of mind by Col. Moammar Khadafy’s government barred the dissidents’ flight to intended sanctuary in Libya—and raised fears of reprisals against the hijackers’ remaining hostages on the Damascus tarmac. It was then that Assad made his offer, reopening the way for their release, while the hijackers and the other Pakistani dissidents stayed behind in Syria. If the question of survival had been settled, however, others remained unresolved. One was the exact role in the hijacking played by the man accused of masterminding it: Murtaza Bhutto, 26year-old eldest son of former Pakistani prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, deposed by Zia in a coup and later hanged.

A second was the degree of involvement of the Soviet Union, its client government in Afghanistan, and Libya. Finally, there was the likely effect of the hijacking on the shaky political situation of the authoritarian Zia back home in Pakistan.

There was no doubt in the mind of Pakistani Defence Secretary General Rahim Khan that the young Bhutto was the leader of Al-Zulfikar (The Flag of Zulfikar), the hitherto unheard-of group to which the hijackers’ leader, code-named Alam Gir, claimed allegiance. On the hijacked plane’s arrival in Kabul—the first leg of its odyssey— Murtaza was there to embrace the hijackers and told nearby Afghan officials: “These are our boys and they have succeeded in their first mission.” Not only that, Murtaza, as the brains behind the hijacking, had been tutored by the international terrorist Carlos—real name, Ilych Ramirez Sanchos—also known as The Jackal.

These allegations were flatly denied by members of the Bhutto family and by Murtaza himself, in a call to The Guardian in London from the Middle East. But Murtaza was known to have been embittered by the gutlessness of ex-colleagues over his father’s execution and to have become involved in setting up a guerrilla organization to overthrow Zia and restore democracy. Murtaza had travelled widely in the Middle East over the past two years and recently is thought to have been living in Kabul.

Such contacts seemed to point the finger clearly at Afghan and Soviet involvement, just as the hijackers’ intended destination, Tripoli, appeared to implicate Libya. And Pakistani authorities were quick to seize on the point. It was evident, said General Khan, that in addition to having had coconspirators in Karachi, the hijackers also received “a lot of help” in Kabul. Their arsenalautomatics, grenades, bombs and submachine-guns—was too large to have been taken aboard at the start of the flight.

In fact, Pakistan and Afghanistan

have long protected and encouraged each other’s opponents. Former prime minister Bhutto gave arms and financial aid to a group of Moslem rebels in Afghanistan in the mid-’70s, and Zia is said to have continued to support them in the current guerrilla war there. In such circumstances it would have been surprising if the Soviets, hard-pressed in Afghanistan, had not seized the chance to do some destabilizing of their own—in Zia’s backyard.

They may have been encouraged by the fact that Zia is now more isolated than at any time since he overthrew the Bhutto government in 1977. Pakistan’s main banned political parties, headed by Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), had threatened a general strike for later this month if Zia did not resign and call free elections. In Peshawar last month, students opened fire on police. Schools, colleges and universities in many parts of the country have been closed in an effort to deprive the opposition of a base. No politician of any consequence has agreed to join Zia’s latest military-civilian cabinet, and there are signs of stirring even within the army.

This situation, rather than their complicity in the hijacking—the official line in Islamabad was that Al-Zulfikar is the PPP’s military wing—may explain the speed with which the authorities rounded up Bhutto’s widow (the Begum Nusrat, who now leads the PPP), daughter Benazir and more than 100 others. There was no evidence that the Bhutto women, no strangers to Zia’s jails, were

even aware of the hijack plot, and the arrests seemed a straightforward attempt to cripple the planned strike.

In this limited ambition, Zia was likely to be successful, for there was widespread shock at the hijackers’ murder of Tariq Rahim, the father of a fivemonth-old child. It seemed as though Rahim had been carefully singled out. A former Bhutto aide-de-camp, he was later believed to have supported the prime minister’s execution. But it was doubtful if Zia could count on public sympathy for him as more than a temporary distraction.