History files: When PIA flight was hijacked to stop nuclear testing
Four days before Pakistan became the seventh nation to conduct nuclear tests, there was a crucial development that might have changed the course of history or could have made a significant impact on the country’s sovereignty.
In the late 1990s, South Asia saw a sharp rise in “nuclear nationalism” as Pakistan and India joined a race to equip their militaries with ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.
India had first tested its nuclear capability in 1974–popularly known as Operation Smiling Buddha— in Pokhran region of Rajasthan. Pakistan, on the other hand, was only ambitious to do so: the efforts were being made under the umbrella of Project-706.
When the Hindu right-wing politician of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) , Atal Bihari Vajpayee, took premiership after 1998 Indian general elections, he envisioned to make India a full-fledged nuclear state.
After few weeks, India once again went for nuclear testing. The Pokhran-II tests were a series of five nuclear bomb explosions conducted in May 1998.
Frustrated by India’s growing aggression towards boosting its nuclear capabilities, Pakistan successfully conducted nuclear tests (Chagai-I) at Chagai District, Balochistan on May 28, 1998.
Two days later, on May 30, 1998, Pakistan conducted its second test (Chagai-II) with now total six explosion tests, one more than India, despite the immense political and diplomatic pressure.
In between the most crucial period of the Sub-continent’s history, a Pakistani flight was hijacked which had to be taken to India with a mission to stop Pakistan from conducting its nuclear tests in Balochistan.
However, the plan was failed after Pakistani pilot and security forces heroically dealt with the situation.
Hijacking of PIA plane
On May 24, 1998, Pakistan International Airline Flight PK-544 (PIA Fokker F27) was hijacked shortly after it took off from Gwadar. Around 33 passengers with five other crew members were taken hostage by three armed Baloch insurgents.
The hijackers wanted to land in New Delhi, but the pilot, Captain Uzair Khan, while making an excuse of fuel shortage, took a bold step and landed the plane in Pakistan’s Hyderabad Airport. At this stage, the pilot made the hijackers believe that they had crossed the Indian border and were currently at Bhuj Airport in the state of Gujarat for the purpose of refueling the plane .
Captain Uzair carefully did his job and acted like he was talking to Indian authorities in Bhuj Airport while he was actually in contact with the airport’s manager who also managed to understand the critical situation. Now, the Hyderabad airport staff continued to pretend that they were from Bhuj airport which assured the hijackers that the plane had been arrived in India.
It was later revealed that the pilot had made this strategy because he had heard the hijackers talking about the maps of Bhuj.
After landing in Hyderabad, the hijacker sent flight engineer Sajjad Chaudhry to inform the airport authorities (whom they assumed to be Indians) about their demands, including food, water and fuel for the plane.
Police had now decided to meet the hijackers: two police officials, Usman Anwar and Akhtar Gorchani, introduced themselves as Bhuj airport’s officials while posing as Ram (Anwar) and Manoj (Gorchani). They had carried water bottles with them.
Later, Deputy Commissioner Hyderabad Sohail Akbar Shah (as DC Bhuj) and intelligence officer Major Amir Saleem (as electrician) joined the team. All the officials had communicated with the hijackers in Hindi and tried to befriend with the insurgents as Indians.
Usman Anwar told BBC Urdu that he had to hide his Rs500 note of Pakistani currency and change the time of his watch as he wanted to conceal his real identity.
Meanwhile, Pakistani security forces had cordoned off all the surroundings of the airport. The Special Service Group (SSG) had been put on alert to deal with any possible consequence.
All lights were switched off in order to refrain the hijackers from recognising the place–possibly by reading signboards. All the mosques had been advised to do not use loudspeakers for prayer calls (Azan).
According to Anwar, they criticised Pakistan in front of the hijackers and even cracked jokes about Pakistanis to appease them.
After gaining much of the confidence of the hijackers, the officials evacuated all the passengers from the plane and provided them food and water. They also told the hijackers that Indian media and reporters were on the way to publicise their demands, especially to Pakistan.
After talking to them, the officials confirmed that the insurgents had no bombs but only few guns which they would use to explode the plane’s engine in order to destroy it.
After realising that the operation had to be conducted before dawn, the officials took swift action and eventually succeeded in overpowering all the hijackers with the help of the SSG.
It was reported that one of the official shouted Allah-o-Akbar (God is great) which alarmed the security forces who then stormed the plane.
Shocked by the developing situation, a hijacker tried to shoot one of the security personnel but his own companion was injured as bullet missed the target.
All the security officials who led the operation were awarded with highest honors.
According to the reports, in less than five minutes, all the hijackers were arrested and sent to police headquarters for further investigation. Later, a Hyderabad-based Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) awarded all the hijackers, Shahsawar, Sabir and Shabbir, death sentence which was implemented after 17 years on May 28, 2015.
According to the reports, Shabbir was executed in Karachi Central Jail while Sabir and Shahsawar were executed in Hyderabad Central Jail.
However, a member of the Airport Security Force was turned out to be the accomplice of the insurgents who was bribed into giving clearance to their bags in airport in Balochistan, without checking them in the pretext of smuggling. He was awarded a life sentence.
During the investigation, it was disclosed that the hijackers were opposed to any nuclear test in Balochistan. The Pakistani nuclear tests were eventually conducted four days later in Chagai in reaction to India’s testing of nuclear weapons a few weeks prior to the incident.
It is important to note that according to the hijackers’ confession reported by Pakistani media, the aircraft hijacking was actually planned by Indian intelligence agency to stop Pakistan from conducting nuclear tests.