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Kate Clark reporting from Kandahar
"The hijackers only allowed him one hour of freedom"
 real 28k

The BBC's Yvette Austin
"The hijackers demanded his return after treatment and he is now back on the plane"
 real 28k

Thursday, 30 December, 1999, 16:40 GMT
Hope for hijack talks

A tank now stands guard over Kandahar airfield A tank now stands guard over Kandahar airfield

A senior Taleban official has said he is "optimistic" about negotiations with hijackers holding 160 hostages aboard an Indian Airlines jet in the Afghan city of Kandahar.

Taleban Foreign Minister Abdul Wakil Muttawakil described Thursday as "a good day".

Hijack Special Report
"The negotiations went very well. We can only say that we are optimistic," he said.

"The main difficulty is, if there is an agreement between the two sides, where do the hijackers go and where will the prisoners be freed?"

India denies discussing numbers

Diplomats at the airport in Kandahar said the Indian negotiators have indicated they are willing to free some of the 35 pro-Kashmiri militants whose release the hijackers have been demanding.

However, the Indian Foreign Ministry said this was not true.

Foreign Minister Mutawakil addresses journalists on the tarmac Foreign Minister Mutawakil addresses journalists on the tarmac
An Indian negotiator in Kandahar told the Reuters news agency: "We are not talking about numbers. We are still talking about general issues."

The hijackers are also seeking the release of a Pakistani Muslim cleric, Masood Azhar, whom India arrested in 1994 claiming that he was a leader of the Kashmiri fighters.

The ordeal for the hostages entered its seventh day on Thursday. The plane was hijacked on 24 December, and has been on the tarmac at Kandahar since early the following day.

The first big breakthrough since the jet was hijacked on 24 December came on Wednesday, when the Taleban persuaded the hijackers to drop their demands for a $200m ransom and the body of a Kashmiri militant.

Click here to see the hijacked plane's route

Thursday's progress came after the Taleban moved commandoes and heavy weapons on to the airfield at Kandahar, in what correspondents described as a show of force designed to concentrate the minds of negotiators on both sides.

The authorities have shown signs of impatience, and have threatened to force the plane to leave Afghanistan unless there is progress towards a conclusion of the hostages' ordeal.

Taleban praised

The Taleban have been praised for their handling of the crisis by the Indian Government, and by diplomats from other countries whose nationals are among the hostages. The majority are Indian, but there are also citizens of Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, Spain, and the United States.

Mr Muttawakil said the Taleban supreme leader, Mullah Omar, was being kept informed of every development in the negotiations.

"He told us to deal with it cautiously. He said clearly from the beginning that he will not tolerate the blood of innocent people being shed in our territory," he added.

Hostage Simon Berar returns to the plane after hospital treatment Hostage Simon Berar returns to the plane after hospital treatment
The Taleban authorities have told the hijackers they will be held responsible if any of the hostages dies.

On Thursday an Indian hostage, Simon Berar, 30, who is reported to suffer from stomach cancer, was allowed off the plane for 90 minutes to receive hospital treatment.

He was taken to a Taleban military hospital, because the International Committee of the Red Cross had said it would not allow him to be taken back onto the plane.

The hijackers stabbed one hostage to death in the early hours of the hijacking, and released 27, mainly women and children, during a stopover in Dubai.

Another hostage, who suffers from diabetes, was released on 26 December.

Plane will not be stormed

Mr Muttawakil repeated that Afghanistan would not allow the hijackers to stay on its territory.

He said the reinforcement of the airfield did not mean that the Taleban were preparing to storm the plane.

On Wednesday, the hijackers allowed three airport staff members to board the aircraft and clean it.

They were the first people to see the hostages since their ordeal began five days ago.

They said the hijackers were carrying pistols and hand grenades but the passengers seemed relaxed, playing cards and chess and listening to music.

Passengers were no longer blindfolded, the staff said, and some were allowed to move around the aircraft.

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See also:
30 Dec 99 |  South Asia
Analysis: Testing time for Taleban
30 Dec 99 |  South Asia
History of hijacking
29 Dec 99 |  South Asia
Hijackers drop two demands
29 Dec 99 |  South Asia
Analysis: India warms to the Taleban
28 Dec 99 |  South Asia
Analysis: A high profile militant group
25 Dec 99 |  South Asia
Chronology of a hijack
28 Dec 99 |  South Asia
International concern over hijack
25 Dec 99 |  South Asia
Profile: Maulana Masood Azhar
26 Dec 99 |  South Asia
In pictures: The Indian Airlines hijack
27 Dec 99 |  South Asia
Indian media slams government

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