Mystery deaths in the afternoon skies

BOB LEVIN August 29 1988

Mystery deaths in the afternoon skies

BOB LEVIN August 29 1988

Mystery deaths in the afternoon skies


The American-made C-130 transport plane took off from the Pakistani airbase at Bahawalpur, 100 km west of the Indian border, at about 4:30 p.m. last Wednesday. On board were President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq and 29 others, including 10 senior Pakistani army officers and Arnold Raphel, the 45-year-old U.S. ambassador to Pakistan. Bound for army headquarters in Rawalpindi, 500 km northeast, the party had come from a field demonstration of the M-l tank that Pakistan was considering purchasing from the United States. What happened next remains unclear. A government spokesman said that just five minutes after takeoff, “the plane was engulfed in a big ball of fire, somersaulted and tumbled to the ground.” Some witnesses reported that the aircraft merely began to smoke in midair, then lost altitude and crashed. Whatever the case, the charred wreckage was scattered across a sandy plain. A copy of the Koran, the Moslem holy book, escaped the flames. But there were no survivors.

The death of the autocratic 64-year-old Zia created a vast power vacuum in strategic Pakistan and raised strong suspicions of foul play. In a television address just hours after the crash, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, 73, the leader of the Senate, who assumed nominal power under the Pakistani constitution, said that “sabotage cannot be ruled out.” The next day, Information Minister Ellahi Bakhsh Soomro said that authorities suspected the Hercules plane was destroyed by a bomb or an antiaircraft missile. “What else could it be?” he said. “The C-130 is the safest plane and it can land even if its engines stop working.” While investigators sifted through the debris for clues, Pakistanis—well aware that Zia was a man with plenty of enemies— hurled unsubstantiated blame at everyone from ambitious military men to neighboring India to the Soviet-backed Afghan secret police.

Ishaq Khan declared a state of emergency and announced the creation of a 13-member council to run

the country temporarily. He insisted that general elections would be held as planned on Nov. 16. The leading contender in an electoral campaign would be the charismatic Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, whose father, Prime Min-

ister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was overthrown by Zia in 1977 and subsequently hanged (page 30). But most analysts contended that the army—the real power in Pakistan—would not allow the elections to take place. Whether another Zia-style leader would arise to fill the void remained uncertain. “There is no strongman now,” said one Western diplomat in Islamabad. “Zia was head and shoulders above everyone else.” Meanwhile, as condolences poured in from world leaders, Pakistanis shuttered their stores or tied strips of black cloth to colorfully decorated buses. On Aug. 20, dignitaries from 50 countries were among the 200,000 mourners who gathered as Zia was buried with military honors. Still, the overall reaction was markedly muted—a sign, Western diplomats said, that Zia was respected but not deeply loved. Bhutto herself said g chillingly, “I do not regret § the death of Zia.” g But while Bhutto voiced 9 her determination to win I power, most observers exg pressed doubts that she g or other opposition leaders ° would have resorted to assassination. “She wants a peaceful transition,” said Mumtaz Ahmad of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based liberal think-tank. Other analysts pointed out that, after years of channelling arms to the Afghan rebels in the grinding war next door, Pakistan has many groups with access to weapons and explosives. As one Western diplomat quipped: “Who did it? Take your pick.” Some observers suggested that elements of the army might have been involved. Under that theory, Westerntrained senior officers may have objected to Zia’s efforts to impose Islamic law—including strict moral codes and public floggings for sinners—on Pakistani society. Speculation about the army’s role increased when Pakistani newspapers reported Thursday that Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, who succeeded Zia as army chief of staff, was with the president at Bahawalpur— but left by a separate plane. But military specialists noted that, for security reasons, it was standard procedure for the chief of staff and his deputy not to fly on the same aircraft.

Externally, some Pakistanis pointed reflexively to their longtime enemies in neighboring India, with whom they have fought wars in 1947-1948, 1965 and 1971. Although Zia made several conciliatory gestures toward India, New Delhi officials have long complained that he was actually more aggressive than his predecessors. On Aug. 15, Indian President Rajiv Gandhi warned of “serious consequences” if Zia continued his alleged support for Sikh terrorists in the Punjab. Declared Gandhi: “We do not want to initiate any action that will cause Pakistan to repent later.” After Zia’s death, Gandhi said that he was “deeply shocked and distressed.” But ordinary Indians were not so diplomatic. “People in Pakistan distributed sweets when Indira Gandhi was murdered,” said Laxmi Devi, 54, a New Delhi maid, referring to the 1984 assassination of the prime minister. “Now God has punished them.”

In Kashmir, India’s Moslem-dominated northern border state, agitated crowds, blaming India, rampaged through several towns,

setting fire to the homes of Hindus. Soldiers and paramilitary forces opened fire, killing at least five people and wounding scores more. But Indian officials deny that the New Delhi government played any role in killing Zia. “It would be virtually impossible,” said one, “to carry out such an attack more than 100 km from the border in a high-security zone without declaring open war.”

But among diplomats in Islamabad, the prime suspect was the Afghan secret police, or Khad, which has been trying to undermine Zia’s support of antigovernment guerrillas in Afghanistan. Many Pakistanis blame the Khad

for blowing up an arsenal near Islamabad containing arms for the Afghan rebels earlier this year, killing over 90 people, including civilians living nearby, and injuring 1,100. Suspicion of Khad was heightened by the fact that, along with Zia, last week’s crash killed Gen. Akhtar Abdul Rehman, who masterminded arms supplies to the Afghan rebels.

Most observers expressed doubts that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would have sanctioned such an operation. In recent months, as Soviet troops have begun withdrawing from Afghanistan, Moscow has angrily accused Pakistan of violating last April’s Geneva accords, under which Pakistan agreed not to continue arming the rebels. Still, Ahmad of the Brookings Institution said he doubted that the Soviets were involved unless “there is some Col. North acting there that Gorbachev doesn’t know about.”

For Pakistan, a nation of 103 million people carved out of predominantly Moslem areas of the British-ruled Indian subcontinent in 1947, g Zia’s death marked the = end of an era. Short and I stocky, with his traders mark military mouss tache and slicked-back i hair, Zia dominated his nation with an iron hand, a Moslem heart and a hard-earned reputation for ruthlessness. Born into a middle-class family in what is now India’s Punjab province, Zia worked his way up the career military ladder until, in 1976, Prime Minister Bhutto appointed him army chief of staff over eight more senior officers. He was regarded, observers recall, as trustworthy and unambitious. But in July, 1977, after the country erupted in massive riots triggered by reports that Bhutto had rigged recent national elections, Zia detained Bhutto, dissolved the cabinet and proclaimed martial law.

He soon reneged on his promise to step down within 90 days. His government arrested and eventually executed Bhutto on charges of conspiring to murder a political opponent—he survived—and it killed, banished or imprisoned other rival leaders while appeasing the mullahs and tightly controlling the media. In fact, in his 11year reign, Zia took only token steps toward democracy. In March, 1985, he handed over ostensible leadership to a civilian government under Prime Minister Mohammed Khan Junejo.

But Benazir Bhutto and other opponents maintained that the government was little more than a facade for Zia’s continued rule, an opinion borne out last May when Zia suddenly fired Khan Junejo and dissolved the lower house of parliament. He called new elections for November but barred political parties, making all candidates run as individuals. Critics pointed out that, in a nation with a 74-per-cent illiteracy rate, the lack of party symbols on the ballots would make a sham of the election.

Internationally, Zia—at first regarded as a pariah in the Westfound sudden respectability after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In return for acting as the main conduit for U.S. arms supplies to the anti-Communist guerrillas, Pakistan received a $3.84-billion, six-year U.S. military and economic aid package beginning in 1982. After the fatal crash last week, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz hailed Zia as “a great friend,” and President Ronald Reagan said, “Our strong support for the people of Pakistan, and the security and territorial

integrity of Pakistan, will continue.”

But many observers predicted that Zia’s death would accelerate a coming crisis in U.S.-Pakistani relations. Congress, spurred by supporters of Israel, has repeatedly questioned the wisdom of providing massive military support to a country that is actively developing a nuclear capability—the so-called Islamic Bomb. Last year, Congress even voted to cut off all aid unless Pakistan vowed to halt its nuclear efforts; the legislators eventually relented but demanded that Reagan certify that Pakistan does not already have a nuclear device. Reagan did just that, despite the fact that administration officials say Pakistan—like India—has the components and know-how to assemble a nuclear bomb.

Under the congressional ruling, the President must make another certification to Congress in October. And with the Soviets now withdrawing from Afghanistan, the main justification for arming Pakistan—and for minimizing its nuclear efforts—is disappearing as well. Said a former U.S. ambassador in the area: “You can believe the Israelis and their supporters will push hard once again for Congress to put pressure on Islamabad to discontinue its nuclear developments.”

What will happen next in Pakistan is an open question. Nusrat Ali Shah, a member of the national assembly dissolved by Zia last May, contended that martial law would be reimposed only if political leaders fail to run a peaceful campaign for the November election. “Now it is up to the politicians,” Ali Shah told Maclean's. “They must be wise enough not to let the system break down.” Still, many observers predicted that the Pakistani military would find some pretext for calling off the election. And in New Delhi, officials expressed fears that ambitious Pakistani generals might try to whip up jingoistic fervor against India to seize long-term control. As the post-Zia era began last week, Pakistan’s future—like the compelling question of who killed its presidentremained decidedly murky.

-BOB LEVIN with ANDREW PHILLIPS in Islamabad, AJOY BOSE in New Delhi and DONALD NEFF in Washington