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Confusion Amid Pan Am Hijacking : Pakistani Rescue Effort: Case of Too Many Leaders

September 10, 1986|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

KARACHI, Pakistan — As many as seven different senior Pakistani officials were involved in making decisions and giving orders during last week's hijacking of the Pan American World Airways jumbo jet at Karachi International Airport, resulting in confusion that apparently delayed the reaction by army commando units when the four Palestinian hijackers began firing wildly at the passengers.

The officials--including military and police commanders, elected leaders, the country's civil aviation director and the provincial governor--also failed to act on a warning from Pan Am executives that the plane's generator would probably fail.

When the generator's fuel ran out and the cabin lights dimmed, the hijackers apparently panicked and began shooting, killing 17; one passenger, a California businessman, had been slain earlier.

According to government and diplomatic sources here, confusion over who was in charge--in part caused by Pakistan's recent emergence from eight years of martial law--led to key communication failures and later to the circulation of misinformation about what happened in the last moments of the hijacking.

While authorities here initially reported, for example, that army commandos stormed aboard the aircraft and captured it immediately after the hijackers started firing, it has since become clear that the commandos did not approach the plane for between three and 15 minutes after the attack.

The passengers who escaped the plane by jumping off the wings or sliding down evacuation chutes were helped only by cabin attendants and, in at least one case, broke down a door themselves.

The most glaring communication breakdown involved the generator, or auxiliary power unit, that provides lighting and air conditioning while the Boeing 747 aircraft is on the ground. Pan Am officials here and in the United States insist that they informed some Pakistani officials at the airport that the power unit would fail some time Friday evening, but other authorities said they were never advised.

According to passengers interviewed afterwards, the generator went out about 9 p.m. Friday Karachi time, and its failure caused the four hijackers to panic and open fire with automatic weapons and hand grenades.

Gov. Jahandad Khan of Sind province said Tuesday that he was never told of the possibility that the power unit would fail. Khan was the senior official at the airport during the 16 hours the hijacking was in progress.

Practicing on a 747

Despite the information supplied by Pan Am, the sudden failure of the power unit caught Khan and some of the other officials by surprise. At the time, according to several sources, at least some of the commandos brought in to mount a rescue operation were a considerable distance away from the Pan Am plane, carrying out a practice exercise on a Pakistan International Airlines 747.

"I think it was just a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing," one diplomatic source said. "Just think, you had federal authorities, military authorities, provincial authorities. . . ."

All of the passengers interviewed here said they saw no sign of the commandos or policemen when they reached the ground.

"When we came out, there was nobody," said Clarence Maloney, 52, of Montclair, N.J.

Nonetheless, some Pakistani officials promptly announced that the commandos, elements of the army's Special Operations Group under the command of Brig. Tariq Mahmud, had stormed the plane and freed the passengers. Mahmud himself said his commandos arrived at the plane only two minutes after the hijackers opened fire.

One official, Air Marshal Khurshid Anwar Mirza, the Pakistan director of civil aviation, who served as official spokesman during the incident, said the power unit failure and the consequent dimming of the lights had been the signal for army commando units to advance.

Mirza also said the commandos had killed two of the hijackers.

Contradicted by Official

The next day, another official, Brig. Tariq Rafi, airport security force commander, said none of the hijackers had been killed.

"The problem is we had too many . . . versions from various authorities," said Karachi newspaper editor Wajid Shamsul Hasan, one of the many journalists trying to sort out the contradictions.

The erroneous early reports led to widespread misconceptions and misunderstandings. They are what led President Reagan, among other world leaders, to praise Pakistan for its "bold and decisive" action against the hijackers.

Still, U.S. officials here defend the President's statement, arguing that although the Pakistanis failed to mount a commando attack on the plane, they showed courage and resolve in deciding not to grant the hijackers' demands and let the plane leave for Cyprus.

"There was bold action," one U.S. official said. "The plane stayed on the ground. They could have brought a crew in and taken off but they left the plane on the ground."

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