NEW DELHI, India, Jan, 16 Reuter: Indian commandoes today staged a mock hijack of a genuine domestic flight with more than 90 unsuspecting passengers aboard to test security, triggering nationwide fears a real hijack was underway, officials said.
The mock hijackers were reported to have seized the plane after takeoff from New Delhi, flown it to Aurangabad, 400 miles away, and demanded a million dollars and the release of prisoners held in the city of Bhopal.
At one point, the authorities told a leading Indian news agency that the four gunmen had thrown the body of a slain passenger onto the tarmac.
As it turned out, officials said, there were no regular passengers aboard the plane, only government personnel taking part in the mock exercise.
It was not clear which of the people reporting the hijacking were deliberately spreading a false version of the events and which believed that a hijacking was under way.
ALARM AND CONFUSION
The incident spread alarm and confusion throughout the country before the Press Trust of India, the leading news agency here, told subscribers in the late afternoon that the agency’s report was not true.
Official Indian spokesman had said for most of the day that the hijacking was only a security exercise, but the Press Trust, while disseminating their statement, continued to quote other authorities as saying the hijacking was still under way.
Meanwhile, the United News of India, a rival agency, stuck by its earlier report that the hijacking was a security exercise.
With some embarrassment, the Press Trust instructed editors at midafternoon that its earlier reports about the hijacking should not be disseminated. But by then Indian newspapers and news agencies had handled a flood of anxious phone calls about the episode.
A government official said even the earlier reports about the Sikh gunmen aboard the plane shouting demands for a separate state for Sikhs had been part of the exercise.
This admission was considered likely to enrage the Sikhs, whose leaders charge that Sikhs are unfairly singled out by the government as terrorist suspects.
“It’s absolutely asinine”, said Khushwant Singh, a writer and Sikh historian. “Any stick is good enough to beat the Sikhs. It’s a vicious kind of thing to do.”
But an Indian official defended the use of Sikh extremist slogans as making the exercise more realistic, saying, “We cannot have pro Palestine slogans, can we?”
Four fictitious names of Sikhs were also given out to the Press Trust, but the official said they were not supposed to have been released.
The confusion over the hijacking report underscored India’s extreme nervousness over terrorism, and it seemed also to highlight credibility problems in the government, since news organizations were uncertain about the government assertions that the hijacking was only an exercise.
A spokesman for the Press Trust said its editors did not know which reports to believe, so the agency reported the government assertion along with reports from Bombay that the hijacking was actually going on.
Another factor prolonging the confusion was the poor telephone service in India. From New Delhi and Bombay, it was impossible to determine exactly what was going on at Aurangabad, 100 miles east of Bombay.
At a briefing, Ramamohan Rao, the government spokesman said the supposed hijacking was a “joint exercise” by the Home and Civil Aviation Ministries to check the preparedness of various security agencies. “Such exercises are likely to continue”, he said.