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'Game Plan Was to Keep Terrorists Talking' : Delay Tactics Thwarted by Power Failure

September 06, 1986|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

KARACHI, Pakistan — The strategy of U.S and Pakistani officials in the hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 here Friday was to delay responding to the demands of the hijackers and to keep them talking.

The strategy of delay worked until the aircraft's generator ran out of fuel, dimming the jumbo jet's lights, panicking the terrorists and bringing the 16-hour drama to a sudden end.

"The game plan," said an American official present, one of a dozen or so Americans who worked behind the scenes at the airport command post, "was to keep the terrorists talking. And they were talking until the power went off."

The strategy was aided by the fact that the American cabin crew, including the pilot and co-pilot, had escaped from the Boeing 747 as the hijacking got under way--leaving no one to operate the plane.

Although airline officials assured the hijackers that the new, Arabic-speaking crew they had demanded was en route, the officials continually returned to the hijackers with requests for more time they said they needed to get the crew to Karachi.

The leader of the hijackers, who was called Mustafa, initially demanded that a crew be provided immediately or he and the other hijackers would kill one of the 384 hostages--364 passengers, 13 flight attendants and seven Pan Am ground employees--every 10 minutes.

After the hijackers killed one American passenger, Rajesh Kumar, of Huntington Beach, Calif., by shooting him in the back of the head with a pistol and dumping him onto the tarmac, there were fears that the hijackers might make good on their threat.

Mustafa's voice over the cockpit radio sounded assured and confident--"cool, calm and dangerous," said one U.S. official who monitored the negotiations.

However, Pakistani officials who also negotiated with the hijackers were able to win from them the admission that they had no complaints against Pakistan, a Muslim country that has generally backed Palestinian causes. After that, the Pakistani officials assured the Arab hijackers that they would make the Americans provide a new crew.

Pakistan's civil aviation director, Khurshid Anwar Mirza, told reporters that the hijackers, who called themselves the "Arab Liberation Organization Against Imperialism," had even apologized for killing the American, Kumar.

'Very Nervous' at First

"Initially," Mirza said in a Friday morning press briefing, "they (the hijackers) were very, very nervous. Now they are more relaxed. They seem to have good feelings."

While the Pakistanis attempted to charm the hijackers in their negotiations over the ground-to-cockpit radio, they secretly ordered an elite army commando unit to Karachi from Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, and hid them in a jet-fuel depot near the hijacked craft.

Meanwhile, American security staff members brought to the scene considered other ruses to stretch out the negotiation process. One security officer worked with a Karachi-based Drug Enforcement Administration agent on a plan to disrupt radio communications so that the hijackers and the Pan Am ground staff would be forced to use megaphones and hand-held radios, a process that would delay negotiations.

The delay strategy, refined in previous hijacking negotiations, was apparently approved at the highest levels of the American-based airline and the U.S. government.

All Advised Negotiations

In a press conference in New York, Pan Am's vice chairman and chief operating officer, Martin R. Shugrue, said: "Every expert we consulted counseled, 'Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. Buy time.' We would not have done anything differently. Our negotiations were in completely good faith."

The strategy was also endorsed by the Pakistani government. "The idea was to talk them out of this, tire them out," Mirza said.

Until the hijacked airplane's generator stopped at about 9:15 p.m. Friday, the plan appeared to be working. Negotiators had won delays from the hijackers of more than four hours after their first deadline. Meanwhile, the negotiators were preparing to ask for another six-hour delay when the shooting began inside the aircraft.

Even before that, however, the delay strategy threatened to veer out of control. At one point, the Arabic-speaking translator, a ticket agent with Saudia Airlines at the Karachi airport, walked into the tiny Pan Am communications office used by American and Pakistani officials to talk with the hijackers by radio and offered some delay tactics of his own.

Americans Listened

As two American security men listened in horror, he suggested telling the hijackers that there was no fuel for their aircraft at the Karachi airport and that Cyprus, the destination sought by the hijackers, had refused permission for them to land.

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