Colombo, February 7 (Counterpoint): Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who died in Dubai last week, had to make many difficult choices in his career. But the hardest of them all was when he had only minutes to decide whether his plane should crash land in Pakistan or land in India to be captured by his “sworn enemy”.
This episode is described in Musharraf’s memoir entitled: “In the line of fire” (Simon and Schuster, London, 2006).
Gen. Musharraf, the then Army chief, was returning to Karachi on October 12, 1999, after attending ceremonies in Colombo relating to the 50 th. Anniversary of the Sri Lankan army. His flight, PK 805 of the Pakistan International Airlines, carried 198 passengers including a number of school kids. As it was about to land in Karachi, Musharraf was requested by his military secretary Nadeem Taj to come to the cockpit as the pilot had something to say. Musharraf was reluctant. But due to Nadeem Taj’s insistence, he went to the cockpit where the pilot told him that the flight control at Karachi had said that the plane would not be allowed to land there or anywhere in Pakistan for that matter.
“Get out of Pakistani airspace immediately and land anywhere else in the world,” was the instruction air traffic control gave the pilot.
Repeated efforts by the pilot and Musharraf’s staff to find out why the flight control was denying a commercial flight of the national airline with the country’s army chief and nearly two hundred civilians on board, the right to land in Pakistan, drew no response. Fervent pleas by the pilot that fuel was running out and only an hour and ten minutes of it was left, fell on deaf ears.
“Sir, I think it has something to do with you,” the pilot told the General.
The pilot had in mind the raging conflict between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army chief Musharraf. Musharraf had launched the controversial war against India at Kargil in Kashmir in May 1999, without Sharif’s full backing. Sharif was plotting to sack Musharraf at an opportune moment, which came when the chief was away in Colombo.
“I could only guess that Prime Minister (Nawaz) Sharif was moving against me. Whoever it was, he was endangering a lot of innocent lives,” Musharraf writes.
The air traffic control then suggested that the plane head to Bombay, Oman in Muscat, Abu Dhabi or Bandar Abbas in Iran. – just about anywhere except, for some reason, Dubai. The traffic controller also informed the pilot that all airports in Pakistan had been told not to let the plane land.
“The whole thing seemed diabolical. Since India was the country closest to us, we would have no option but to go there, given our dangerously low fuel level. This would put us in the hands of our most dangerous enemy, against whom we had fought three full-blown wars. It was unbelievable –an order of this kind coming from the Pakistan authorities to an aircraft of Pakistan’s own national airline with Pakistan’s army chief and Joint Chiefs of Staff committee on board.”
Musharraf further writes: “Air traffic control wouldn’t dare to do something so bizarre and treacherous without instructions from the highest level. I knew my army and there was no question in my mind of a mutiny. Whatever else may have been going on, the army could never countenance sending its chief into Indian hands.”
“It could only be the civilian side of the government. No one below the prime minister could give such a drastic order. Sacking an army chief is one thing; but hijacking his plane and sending it to India, is diabolical. Amazingly, it hadn’t occurred to Nawaz Sharif that his coup against the army would also be a great victory for India. I am still flabbergasted that it didn’t cross his mind how repulsive and embarrassing it would be to deliver the chief of the Pakistan Army, his army, into enemy hands. The people of Pakistan would have deemed it high treason.”
“Where can we go?” Musharraf asked the pilot. “We could either go to Ahmedabad in India or Oman,” the pilot said and added that a decision had to be taken immediately because fuel was very short. But Musharraf was adamant about not going to India. “Over my dead body will you go to India,” he declared angrily.
Musharraf felt that what was happening was unbelievable. “It was a first in history; an aircraft hijacked in the air, by someone on the ground, and not just someone, but a prime minister sworn to protect the lives of citizens. Were they really trying to kill us all just to be rid of me?” he wondered.
Climbing to 21,000 ft on instructions from the air traffic control had consumed so much fuel, that the plane didn’t have enough left to take it anywhere out of Pakistan. While Musharraf was insistent on landing in Karachi no matter what the traffic controller told the pilot that no airfield in Pakistan had its lights on and that there were three fire trucks blocking the runway in Karachi.
“Landing in Karachi is out of the question because we will crash,” the pilot told Musharraf. But the General would not budge. “You just land in Karachi. There are over 200 people on board, and we are going to land in Karachi whether they like it or not,” he told the pilot.
But suddenly air traffic control asked the pilot to land in Nawabshah, 160 miles from Karachi. As the plane was halfway down to Nawabshah, the radio cracked again and this time, the instruction was “abandon Nawabshah and head back to Karachi!”
But Musharraf was not convinced that the call to land in Karachi was well meant. What caused this change of heart? The danger was on the ground, but where? A little later, Maj.Gen.Malik Iftikhar Ali Khan, commander of an army division in Karachi, made radio contact with the aircraft and reiterated the instruction to head for Karachi.
“I was still suspicious, so I spoke to Iftikhar myself. I had to make it certain that it was really he and not someone impersonating him. I also wanted to know if he was not forced to call me,” Musharraf writes.
“What is the problem,” Musharraf asked Iftikhar. And he replied: “Two hours back your retirement was announced and Lt.Gen. Ziauddin Butt was made chief of the army staff. They were trying to divert your plane so that it does not land here. But the army has taken over now and we have control of the airport. You turn back now. We will give you the details later.”
But Musharraf wanted to be doubly certain. “Can you tell me the names of my dogs?” he asked Iftikhar because the real Iftikhar would know their names. ”Dot and Buddy Sir,” Iftikhar replied without hesitation. “Thank you Iftikhar,” Musharraf said and asked the pilot to head for Karachi.
The flight landed with seven minutes of fuel to spare. At the airport, Corps commander Lt.Gen.Usmani received him. Since the army had already taken over the government from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif earlier on the same day, Musharraf became the head of the military government. On 14 October 1999, Musharraf, acting as the country’s Chief Executive, issued a controversial provisional order suspending Pakistan’s constitution which had given the Prime Minister over-riding powers.