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    India to release 36 militants.

    Taleban, Westerners say deal to end Indian Air hijacking close
    Posted Thu Dec 30 14:25:38 1999 ET

    KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN - The Taleban government in Afghanistan, which has given India two days to end a standoff involving a hijacked Indian Airlines jet, now says talks to end the hostage-taking show promise.

    Taleban foreign minister Abdul Wakil Muttawakil said on Thursday talks between Indian negotiators and hijackers holding more than 150 people onboard the plane have gone well.

    Western diplomats say deal to release militants is close but India denies the plans

    Muttawakil's positive take on the talks backs up reports from Western diplomats that a deal to release some Kashmiri militants in order to end the ordeal is close.

    The Taleban government, beginning to show signs of frustration with the stand-off, had earlier ordered soldiers to surround the plane. They moved on to the tarmac with tanks and rocket launchers.

    Muttawakil said there was nothing unusual about the move and denied plans to storm the plane. However, officials said if there is no end to the hijacking in the next two days, they will force the plane to leave Afghanistan.

    Western diplomats say negotiations between Indian diplomats and the hijackers have reached a critical stage. They say a deal is being made to release some Kashmiri militants -- one of the hijackers' demands -- but the Indian government denies any deal.

    The Western diplomats say negotiations held Thursday were dealing with the number of militants to be released.

    Muttawakil says although talks were "promising" he could not disclose details of developments.

    Mohammed Masood Azhar
    The hijackers want the release of 35 militants and are also calling for the release of a Pakistani religious leader, Mohammed Masood Azhar.

    The release of Azhar, who was jailed in 1994 for encouraging a separatist revolt in Kashmir, has been the key demand since the beginining of the ordeal on Friday.

    The hijackers have since dropped demands for $200 million US in ransom and the return of the body of a Kashmiri leader buried in India.

    While talks took place Thursday, hijackers breifly released an ailing passenger so he could receive medical treatment. The unidentified passenger, the second to be released since the aircraft landed in Kandahar last Saturday, was taken away in an ambulance and later returned to the aircraft.

    The Airbus A-300 was hijacked last Friday on a flight to Delhi from Kathmandu. Five hijackers seized the plane. They are said to be armed with grenades, guns and knives.


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