On 17th August 1988, Gen Ziaul Haq, along with his 19 top brass Generals, was blown in the air just after seven minutes of their flight from Bahawalpur airbase. They all had gone to Hasilpur, a town at the brink of deserts, about 55 km away from Bahawalpur to see inaugural functioning of a new American Tank. The then US Ambassador in Pakistan was also one of the dead, considered to be on ‘marketing tour’ to convince and persuade the high command of Pakistan Army for a green signal to buy those tanks against a hefty budget. Gen Zia’s 2nd in command Gen Mirza Aslam Beg had seen them off in an army aircraft C-130, considered one of the most securely built military air carrier. Gen Beg, being the only left over and the senior most had succeeded Gen Zia as a new army chief.
Theories started coming up immediately that it was a sabotage activity or a technical fault with the plane’s engine or allied security systems. The record available with FIA carries a detailed probe (probably in association with the IB team) that if the Al Zulfiqar, the underground terrorist organization set up by Z A Bhutto’s son, Mir Murtaza Bhutto, had played a role to avenge his father’s hanging. One theory referred towards elements within the Pakistan Army, mostly advocated by Gen Zia’s son, Ijaz ul Haq, who alleged that Gen Aslam Beg was behind the crash because he had abstained to accompany the others. The fact remains that Gen Aslam Beg had travelled out from Bahawalpur alone in another similar army plane that day. Moreover, the army was not allowed to cooperate with Justice Shafi ur Rehman Commission which was set up to look into the issue.
Another theory was also given attention during probe if the Iranian or Shia factor could be held responsible for that tragedy because of Gen Ziaul Haq’s ‘Hanfi’ way of Islamization or his close relationship with Saudi rulers. Yet another theory saw the American hand in the incident on the grounds that Gen Ziaul Haq had successfully crossed over the Americans by putting Pakistan’s nuclear program on fast track with the help of US aid manoeuvred to manage under disguised military arsenal. No document is available on record to show if the inquiry people had succeeded in getting any positive clue in that direction.
Apparently convincing and in those days widely believed reason behind the clash was linked with Ojhri Camp of Rawalpindi episode of 10th April 1988. On that day the military ammunition depot, blew up and unleashed an inferno that sent all sorts of rockets all over Rawalpindi and into neighboring Islamabad. Tens of citizens were killed and injured. An inquiry committee was formed consisting of the then cabinet members which was ordered by the then Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo without the consent of Gen Ziaul Haq which was considered an alarming step to degrade the army establishment. The committee had finalised its recommendations but the report never surfaced in public.
On 29th May 1988, when PM Junejo was returning from Sueol (South Korea) after a state visit, the PM’s staff officer had placed that inquiry report for final approval and signature. The ADC, an army officer accompanying the PM, succeeded in conveying the event direct to the Army House Rawalpindi from the cockpit of the plane. Result was the immediate response. When the plane landed at Islamabad airport, there was no media person to question about the official tour; no protocol of cabinet ministers and the PM’s car was there without flag. PM Junejo was fired, while his plane was still in air, by Gen Ziaul Haq using his powers under Article 58(2)(b) of the 8th Constitutional Amendment. The conspiracy experts believed that military dictator’s that action had led to his death in crash.
It remained a mystery even till today, mostly for the American themselves because they had lost their top diplomat, Arnold Raphel and an American General, too. In Pakistan there was no such expertise available then either with army or the civilians to conduct a serious inquiry into an air crash incident except that an FIR was initiated in the local police station and the enquiry was subsequently handled by an FIA team in routine.
Astonishingly, the American themselves had never bothered to launch a solemn, conclusive, or even comprehensive inquiry into the crash. After the crash the FBI was told to ‘keep out of Pakistan’ by Secretary of State George Schultz, though the US had the authority to investigate suspicious plane crashes involving US citizens. The special team to look for forensic evidence was not deployed. The US experts assigned to the official board of inquiry appointed by Pakistan included six air force accident investigators but no criminal, counter-terrorist, or sabotage experts. The US team was expected to reach at the spot immediately to examine the scene of occurrence and to collect, or help the Pakistani teams to collect, the first hand information, pieces of forensic evidence and other related material.
Media record tells us that ‘New York Times’ had tried to unearth certain facts in independent capacity but could not claim a break through because of certain barriers concerning national security affecting both the US and Pakistan. Its bureau chief in South Asia, Barbara, had sent a report suggesting that ‘the infamous Israeli secret agency ‘Mossad’ (whose motto is ‘with clandestine terrorism we will conduct war’) most probably killed Gen Ziaul Haq.’ The Israelis wanted to stop Pakistan from developing nuclear technology. They had attacked Iraq’s nuclear facilities at Osirak in 1981 and believed that Gen Ziaul Haq was very near to then commonly known as ‘the Islamic Bomb’ and feared that formal atom-bomb testing could take place any time then.
The suspicion was also endorsed by John Gunther Dean, who was the American ambassador to India in 1988 and had named his opinion as ‘Smoking Guns’ but his reasons were shelved declaring Mr Dean a ‘psychiatric case.’ However, the record was available to prove that ‘during Mr Dean’s stay in India as an ambassador, various pro-Israel Congressmen and other US policymakers constantly asked him why he wasn’t cooperating with the Israelis to thwart Pakistan’s nuclear program and demonize Pakistan.’ Mr Dean was forcibly sent on retirement in 1988, as noted down by Irshad Saleem at www.DesPardes.com.
World Policy Journal had claimed that ‘still another theory accused the Ahmadiya community of masterminding General Zia’s end. At the time, and until now, there was no mention of the Israelis.’ The available documentation did not support any of the versions relating with Israel’s Mossad or Ahmadiya group because no piece of evidence was available showing their presence or leading to their connection up to that airbase or into the plane.
The Press Trust of India, through a write up of 7th September 2009, assured that US and ‘internal powers’ were behind the 1988 plane crash that killed Gen Ziaul Haq, while referring to Brig (r) Imtiaz Ahmed, former chief of Pakistan’s Intelligence Bureau. IB Ex-Chief had then told a news channel that ‘former army chief Gen Mirza Aslam Beg also said that Zia’s plane crash was not an accident, but sabotage. Zia came to power after overthrowing the then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977.’ But the fact remains that Edward Jay Epstein’s report published by Vanity Fair had ruled out Bhutto family and their Al-Zulfikar from the crash scene altogether. It is on record that Gen Ziaul Haq and Gen Akhtar Abdul Rehman were ‘immensely persuaded’ to go to Bahawalpur suggesting that a ‘faction in the army was bent on an invisible coup d’état.’
Referring to Khalid Hasan’s essay published on 18th June 2004 in media: In Epstein’s opinion Soviet Union might have hand in the said crash because immediately before they had accused Gen Ziaul Haq for violating Geneva Accord. Earlier, in August 1988, the Soviet Union had temporarily suspended troop withdrawals from Afghanistan in protest. Gen Ziaul Haq had also counter attacked Soviets with same like allegations. The Soviets had summoned the US ambassador Jack Matlock and told him about Soviet Union’s intentions to teach Gen Ziaul Haq a lesson. Epstein shunned the possibility of Soviet’s involvement due to American envoy’s presence on plane in the back drop of possible strained relations with Washington. It should be noted however that neither Raphael nor Gen Wassom, head of the US military mission, was supposed to fly back with Gen Ziaul Haq, so Soviet involvement could not be ruled out.
On the other hand, Rajiv Gandhi had also warned Pakistan two days earlier that it should regret its behaviour on arming Sikh separatists. The United States too was unhappy with Gen Zia for diverting a good deal of aid and weapons to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar whom it considered an anti-American extremist. They were also worried about Gen Zia’s nuclear programme.
The details of the enquiry were told by the head of the US team, Col DE Sowada, later that no evidence of a mechanical failure had been found. The official Pakistani report had said the same thing. The US findings, contained in a 365 page report, established that the plane had not exploded in midair but hit the ground intact. It had not been hit by a missile either, nor had there been an on-board fire. No autopsies were performed, except one on the US General who was sitting with Gen Ziaul Haq in plane.
The Pakistani report categorically said that ‘no engine failure; fuel not contaminated; electric power found working normal and no pilot’s error’. The report did mention of traces of explosive particles and related chemicals, or it could be poison gas in cockpit. Thus the findings pointed towards sabotage. The report recommended a criminal investigation in detail. Gen Hamid Gul, then head of ISI, had told Epstein that ‘at the request of the government, the agency had called off its inquiry and transferred it to a “broader-based” authority headed by F K Bandial, a senior civil servant.’ The report was never made public.
At the time of crash, three other planes were flying in the area. Their crew members were interviewed. The last words heard by the control tower were “Stand by” and then a faint voice saying “Mash’hood, Mash’hood”, the name of the captain. The voice was that of Gen Zia’s MS, Brig Najib; a long silence between “Stand by” said by Mash’hood and Najib calling the pilot’s name. Eyewitnesses saw the plane pitching up and down; Lockheed told that this pattern was characteristic of a pilot-less plane, which meant that the pilots were either dead or unconscious. Possibility was that a gas bomb placed in the air vent of the plane which went off when pressurized air was fed into the cockpit. Epstein’s inquiry concluded that any military or civilian mechanic could install such gas bomb in vent within two hours.
Such a gas was widely used in Afghanistan by the Soviets. VX, a US-made gas, could cause paralysis and loss of speech within 30 seconds. If used, it left behind phosphorus and traces of phosphorus were found in the remains of crashed plane. Autopsies could have determined the cause but not done, though the bodies were not returned to the families until two days later. A PAF doctor told that autopsies were routinely performed on pilots after crashes. The remains of human bodies were brought to CMH Bahawalpur but before US or Pakistani pathologists could arrive on next day, they were laid in coffins, sealed and despatched.
One last theory had surfaced, too that the crash was revenge against the then killing of a Shi’a cleric in Peshawar and the pilots of both Gen Zia’s crashed plane and the standby C-130 were Shi’a. One Mash’ood died in crash, the standby plane’s Flt-Lt Sajid was interrogated and even tortured; the PAF had to launch a strong protest for that. It was held by Epstein that ‘the Shiite red herring theory was only one of several efforts to limit the investigation into the crash and divert attention from the issue of sabotage.’ The records of calls made to Gen Zia and Gen Akhtar prior to the crash were destroyed. Military personnel posted in Bahawalpur at the time of the crash were immediately transferred. All leads pointed towards ‘insider’s job’ proposition with a well-organised cover-up.
Ijaz-ul-Haq, being a federal minister twice, could gain access to classified information, could do a lot being a son, a citizen of Pakistan and as an elected official, to determine facts.
One uncounted casualty in 17th August 1988’s crash was the truth; let us agree with Epstein.