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Apparent Hijacking in India was False Alarm - 2001-10-04

An apparent hijacking in India has turned out to be a false alarm, but not before a massive security operation was set in motion. The incident shows how India's nerves are on edge following the September 11th terrorist strikes in the United States.

The hijack drama lasted four hours but ended with relief early Thursday. A Boeing 737 on a domestic flight from Bombay to Delhi with 52 passengers and crew was reported hijacked. But after commandoes stormed the plane, Civil Aviation Minister Shahnawaz Hussain announced that a misunderstanding had set off the false alarm.

Mr. Hussain explained the hijack alarm was triggered by an anonymous phone call to air traffic controllers in Ahmedabad who were told the plane had been seized by two hijackers. The pilot was informed about the phone call, and immediately sealed his cockpit door.

Confusion followed. The pilot thought the hijackers were in the cabin, the passengers were not certain what was happening.

The plane landed at a remote corner of the New Delhi airport. Cabinet members gathered at the airport for an emergency meeting. Bomb squads and ambulances were put in place. The plane was surrounded by commandoes who stormed the cockpit.

Soon after the government announced there were no hijackers on board, and promised an investigation. But confusion still prevails. Some passengers say they were told it was a security drill, some believe it might have been a "real hijacking."

A security expert at the independent Center for Policy Research, Brahma Chellaney, says India's bitter memories with previous hijackings could have triggered the panic. "Firstly it shows that India is quite edgy, and secondly it shows that Indians don't want to take any chance. India has been a major victim of hijackings," Chellaney continues. "I don't think any other country has suffered from so many hijackings as India has had since the 1980s."

The most recent hijacking took place in 1999, when a hijacked Indian Airlines plane was taken to Afghanistan apparently by Muslim militants. A week-long crisis ended with the death of one passenger and the release of three high-profile Muslim militants in exchange for the remaining passengers.

All airports in India have been on high alert for possible attacks by Islamic militants since the September 11 terrorist strikes in the United States. Indian facilities are often threatened by Islamic guerrillas waging a separatist insurgency in Kashmir.