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Monday, 7 February, 2000, 10:48 GMT
Analysis: Who are the hijackers?

Afghanistan's rulers are hostile to the outside world

By BBC News Online's Martin Asser

The Afghan plane which landed at Stansted airport, carrying unidentified hostage-takers and 165 hostages, has come from one of the most isolated and capriciously-ruled countries on earth.

No group has claimed responsibility for the hijack of the airliner - which was on a domestic flight - but the names on the passenger list all suggest Afghan origins and few foreigners are allowed to operate there.

But it is in the nature of politics in war-ravaged Afghanistan that confusion often reigns - a dislocated society governed by a hardline militia that is suspicious and hostile to any outside influence.

Twenty years of war have ravaged the country
The Taleban rulers emerged from universities and religious schools in the aftermath of the campaign of Afghan mujahideen to drive Soviet forces from the country in the 1980s.

Starting as loosely-organised student militia, they swept across the country and established control over the capital Kabul in September 1996.

They imposed a harsh system of Islamic law - much criticised in the West - and only neighbouring Pakistan and two Arab Gulf countries have recognised their rule and established diplomatic relations.

Opposition hero

The hijackers are reported to have demanded the release of Ismail Khan, a hero of the opposition, who was captured by the Taleban in 1997.

Indeed, one feature missing from the chaos of the Afghan wars had, until today, been airline hijacking.

But the opposition, called the northern alliance, has disassociated itself from the hijacking, calling it an act of terrorism against innocent people.

The alliance supports former president Burhanuddin Rabbani who was driven from the capital Kabul by the Taleban in September 1996 and now controls only about 10% of Afghanistan.

Kashmiri militant success on the airfeld at Kandahar
The alliance blames the Taleban for allowing the "presence and active involvement of terrorist networks" for creating a climate of terror in Afghanistan, citing in particular Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi militant who, at least in Washington's eyes, is the world's most dangerous terrorist.

The Taleban itself has also condemned the hijackers as terrorists and says it will not negotiate with them or accept any of their demands.

A statement said the Taleban believed the hijackers were "closely connected" to the main opposition commander, Ahmed Shah Masoud.

No hijack history

Although there is no certainty about responsibility for the hijacking, many observers are pointing out the recent success achieved by Kashmiri militants through the hijack of an Indian airlines plane.

The Kashmiris managed to secure their own safe passage and the release of their jailed leader in India after a long stand-off in the Afghan city of Kandahar.

During that stand-off, and despite their tense relations with the outside world, the Taleban dealt with all countries which had nationals on board, in a display of pragmatism that surprised many abroad.

The Taleban hope for similar treatment from the UK now in the effort to obtain a safe passage home for the Afghan citizens.

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06 Feb 00 |  South Asia
Spotlight falls on Afghan commander

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