Praiseworthy role

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 December, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 December, 1999, 12:00am

It is impossible to visualise the mood inside the hijacked Indian Airlines plane as the hostage drama drags on into its seventh day. The despair of passengers wondering when - or if - relief will come makes for a very bleak scenario.

Yet, as negotiators talk to hijackers, there are small suggestions in other ways the drama may have a positive side. Not least for the internationally ostracised Taleban, whose handling of the crisis has earned praise from many quarters.

Compared with the dithering by New Delhi, the Taleban movement - which is not a government in a formal sense and has no experience with hijackings - has reacted in an exemplary manner. By striking a balance of firmness and calm, the Taleban leaders have almost certainly saved lives thus far. In a significant breakthrough last night, they succeeded in convincing the hijackers to drop the ransom demand by saying it was against Islam.

Had Indian authorities detained the plane when it landed in Amritsar and started a dialogue then, the drama might have taken a different turn. At least it could have kept the crisis on home soil. The response of Pakistan in offering help to ensure the safety of passengers when the plane landed at Lahore, and providing a helicopter to fly the Indian High Commissioner there from Islamabad may help to repair relations between the two countries over Kashmir.

For the Taleban, if it continues to act in the same manner, the hostage drama may signal an end to its present pariah status. It could be a chance for the Taleban to establish diplomatic contacts with the West, if it allows a specially trained commando team from elsewhere to be on hand in case it becomes necessary to storm the plane. The Taleban does not have the expertise to attempt such an exercise. It must recognise that the need to save lives overrules any other consideration.

One lesson for the South Asia region is the need to set aside hostilities in order to create an official anti-terrorism protocol with a common agenda and a co-ordinated response. India, Pakistan and the Taleban have all been accused of aiding terrorist groups. This episode serves to emphasise that terrorism threatens all nations. It can only be defeated by a united front.