Sunday, February 25, 2024

Masood Azhar told Sobhraj about plan to attack Mumbai

Jaish-e-Mohammed founder Masood Mazhar had disclosed his plans to attack India’s finance hub Mumbai, the Indian parliament and power plants 12 years ago to a fellow prisoner in Delhi’s Tihar Jail — international criminal Charles Sobhraj who says he was later asked by India to negotiate with Azhar during the Kandahar hijack.
The unusual friendship was struck up in 1996 when Azhar was shifted to Tihar Jail after being arrested in Jammu and Kashmir. Serving out the last years of his nearly 20-year stint was Sobhraj, who was wanted by the police of nearly a dozen countries.
‘I taught Masood English and he told me about his ideology and what he wanted to do,’ Sobhraj told IANS when author Farrukh Dhondy resurrected Sobhraj’s forgotten friendship with the Islamic cleric during the launch of his new book last month. Sobhraj was released in 1997 and began fashioning a new life for himself in France.
However, he says his frequent visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan kept some of his old associations alive. And so, two years later in 1999 on Christmas Eve, when militants hijacked an Indian Airlines plane from Kathmandu to Afghanistan, then Indian external affairs minister Jaswant Singh sent an envoy to Paris to ask him to negotiate with Azhar’s group for the release of the hostages. ‘I contacted Masood’s party in Pakistan and got from them the firm assurance that for 11 days no hostages would be harmed, meaning India had 11 days to reach a deal,’ said Sobhraj, currently lodged in Kathmandu’s Central Jail for the murder of an American tourist in 1975.
However, Sobhraj says he declined to intervene when some time later India’s Intelligence Bureau called him up to say that Azhar was with them and asked him to persuade the cleric to release the hostages.
‘I declined,’ says Sobhraj. ‘As I knew of Masood’s mind, he would certainly refuse.’
During their stay together in Tihar, Sobhraj says Azhar had yet not founded the Jaish-e-Mohammed, which is now one of India’s most wanted terror organisations. He was general secretary of a militant outfit, Harkat-ul-Ansar, that was also linked with a shadowy group, Al Faran, which claimed responsibility in 1995 for the abduction of five foreign tourists in Jammu and Kashmir.
Azhar, Sobhraj says, had talked about plans to launch attacks on Mumbai, India’s parliament and major power plants.
The Kandahar hijack drama ended on New Year’s Eve with the release of Azhar and two more prisoners — British national Ahmed Omar Sayed Sheikh and Pakistani Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar.
Sheikh is also said to have been involved in the attack on India’s parliament in 2001 and later, in the murder in Pakistan of American journalist Daniel Pearl.
Though his path veered off from Azhar’s after his release from Tihar, Sobhraj, who says he is no longer in contact with the cleric, has, however, been following the careers of both his former prison pal and Sheikh.
When last month an unknown organisation calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen claimed responsibility for the deadly attacks in Mumbai that left over 179 people dead, Sobhraj dismissed the claim saying it was a ‘facade’.
‘Only Masood and his JeM or the Lashkar-e-Taiba would be capable of such meticulous planning,’ he had said.
The Indian parliament was attacked by terrorists in Dec 13, 2001 – 14 people were killed, including the terrorists.

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