Terror alert as Indian flights face hijack risk

Security on the ground and in the air tightened after intelligence reports suggest militant groups could be planning to attack.

MUMBAI // India stepped up security at its airports yesterday and ordered air marshals aboard some flights after intelligence reports warned that the state-run Air India and some private airlines could be targeted by groups affiliated to al Qa'eda or the banned Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Indian flights originating in the country or in neighbouring ones in the subcontinent could be potential targets for hijacking, the intelligence reports said. "India's Bureau of Civil Aviation Security has issued a high-alert advisory to all carriers and airports across the country," said a spokesperson for the country's civil aviation ministry. "This requires security agencies, airlines and airport authorities to adopt [security] drills specified for hijack alerts."

The warning comes just days after Robert Gates, the US secretary of defense, who visited India this week, warned that Pakistan-based militants with links to al Qa'eda were plotting another Mumbai-style terror assault in India, with the aim of igniting a war between the longtime foes. Mr Gates grimly warned that if another terrorist attack was launched, India may not show the restraint it did after the November 26, 2008 attack.

India blames Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeF) for orchestrating the Mumbai assault in which a dozen militants launched a simultaneous attack on a train station, two hotels and a Jewish centre, leading to a three-day stand-off with security forces and the deaths of at least 173 people. According to the intelligence reports, Lashkar has purchased as many as 50 paragliders, which could be used by its members to launch suicide missions on Indian installations. The Indian government said it has set up elaborate air defence measures, including deployment of anti-aircraft guns, to thwart any intrusion into Indian air space.

Pakistan's prime minister, Yusaf Raza Gilani, told Mr Gates the country was striving to eliminate extremists, but could not guarantee there would not be another Mumbai-style attack in India. "Pakistan is itself facing Mumbai-like attacks almost every other day and when we cannot protect our own citizens, how can we guarantee that there wouldn't be any more terrorist hits in India," Mr Gilani reportedly told Mr Gates, during the US envoy's visit to his country.

Relations between the nuclear-rival nations have soured since November 26, particularly as Pakistan drags its feet in apprehending Hafiz Saeed, the alleged mastermind of the Mumbai attack. In December 2008, Pakistani authorities banned his organisation, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a charity believed to be a front for LeT, and Mr Saeed was placed under house arrest. However, in June last year, a Pakistani court released him for lack of evidence.

Pakistan demands that India should provide more concrete evidence against him. P Chidambaram, the Indian home minister, maintains that India has furnished copious evidence to prosecute Mr Saeed. It says it has passed on four dossiers of evidence to Pakistan since November 26. For decades, relations between the countries have remained hostage to the gnawing threat of terrorism. India and Pakistan have sat through four rounds of a dialogue, achieving modest gains on trade agreements and limited confidence-building measures. The fifth round was underway when the Mumbai attacks occurred. The process stalled indefinitely after that.

In July last year there was a slight thaw when both countries decided to restart the dialogue. After a meeting and friendly handshakes in Sharm El Sheikh, in Egypt, they vowed to insulate the dialogue from terrorism, a sticky issue which has often scuttled negotiations in the past. Against a backdrop of three wars, numerous skirmishes along their shared border and decades of cold war, optimistic observers thought this new bonhomie would encourage them to peacefully negotiate all major outstanding disputes, including Kashmir. But the dialogue process has barely inched forward since then, primarily because of the slow progress in the Mumbai prosecutions.

Relations between India and Pakistan touched a new ebb this week after Pakistan reacted with outrage at the humiliating rejection of all 11 of its cricket players in the auctions for the much-vaunted IPL cricket season, due to be held in India later this year. * The National