Dawn investigations: Mystery still surrounds Gen Zia’s death, 30 years on

Behind the crash of Pak-1 is a tale of power politics, deceit and betrayal.
Published August 17, 2018

AUG 17, 1988, 3.51pm: Pak-1, with Gen Ziaul Haq, president and army chief of Pakistan on board, slams into the ground a few miles out of Bahawalpur, near the Sutlej river. Besides the pilots, Wing Commander Mashhood Hassan and Flight Lieutenant Sajid, there are 29 people on the massive Lockheed C-130 Hercules. They include, among others, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee Gen Akhtar Abdur Rahman, Chief of General Staff Mohammed Afzaal, the American ambassador to Pakistan Arnold Raphel and senior US military attaché Brig Gen Herbert M. Wassom.

Wg Cdr Munawar Alam is flying the back-up C-130 from Chaklala air base when he hears the air traffic controller say that he cannot contact the pilots of Pak-1. The ATC asks Brigadier Naseem Khan to make an attempt; he is among the pilots on VIP duty at the airbase and carrying Corps Commander Multan Gen Shamim Alam on board his French-made Puma helicopter. Brig Naseem too gets no response. Almost immediately, the pilots in the vicinity hear a terse message from the Mushshak scout aircraft that had taken off earlier: “Pak-1 has crashed.”

Brig Naseem and Gen Alam are at the crash site within minutes. Clouds of smoke are billowing from the wreckage. “I walked all around it,” remembers the retired brigadier in a conversation with Dawn. “The plane had crashed at an almost perpendicular angle. I first spotted the cap worn by Gen Wassom, and then Gen Akhtar Rahman’s peaked cap. Then my eye fell upon a dismembered leg, wearing a black sock and black shoe. I suspected it belonged to Gen Zia.”

Back at the airfield, Colonel Syed Minhaj Ali in the service of Vice-Chief of Army Staff Gen Aslam Beg is taxiing in his Jet Prop Commander when he hears the shocking news. At once, Gen Beg asks him to head towards the crash site. Soon they come upon the wreckage of the burning aircraft below. “Its nose was buried deep in the earth. We knew at once there were no survivors,” says Col Minhaj, speaking to Dawn at his residence in Rawalpindi. He is given orders to fly the vice-chief to Dhamial airbase.

Squadron Leader Nauman Farrukhi, Mashhood’s younger brother, is at Shorkot base, about 90 miles north of Bahawalpur airfield when he hears about the crash. “For a moment I thought of Mashhood but he had just been moved to the VIP Squadron flying Falcons and Fokkers. We were installing missiles and ammo on my F-16 when the base commander drove up to the hangar. He extended his hand to me and said, ‘I’m sorry.’ Are there any survivors, I asked. ‘No’ he replied. And that was it.”

The wreckage of Pak-1 a few miles from the Bahawalpur airfield. — White Star
The wreckage of Pak-1 a few miles from the Bahawalpur airfield. — White Star

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Toronto, Canada, Gen Zia’s older son Ejazul Haq is on vacation along with his family, and staying with his wife’s younger sister who is married to Gen Akhtar Abdur Rahman’s son Ghazi Akhtar Khan. Around 10am on Aug 17, the telephone rings. The caller, Captain Pir Mohammed, one of Gen Zia’s ADCs, tells Ejazul Haq that his father’s plane has gone missing. “I think they wanted to break it to us gently,” said the general’s son in an interview with Dawn at his office in Rawalpindi. “Then my mamu Dr Basharat Elahi called and broke down. That’s when we found out that my father was no more.”

It is 30 years to the day since Pakistan’s army chief and president Gen Zia died when Pak-1 fell out of the sky. Was the crash a result of technical failure or an assassination? If it was sabotage, then who was involved? Why were the findings of the Shafiqur Rehman Commission, formed to investigate the incident, never released? Was there a cover-up?

This article looks back at the events of that day, and what followed later. In order to do this, we have relied upon Dawn’s archival records, declassified US State Department files, and interviews with individuals connected to the event in a personal capacity. After all, the incident deserves such scrutiny: it was a watershed moment in Pakistan’s history that brought to an end the country’s third and longest military dictatorship. Despite that, it remains a mystery even after the passage of three decades.

The last flight

After Gen Zia, along with the other military officials, arrived in Bahawalpur, he was joined by the two Americans; they had arrived a day earlier to visit a local convent and condole the death of an American nun murdered in Bahawalpur a few days before. They all then made the short hop to Tamewali about 60km away to view a demonstration of the US-made M-I Abrams tank. Reportedly, the two and a half hour event turned out to be a fiasco, with the tank missing its target every single time.

According to a newspaper article written by retired Brig Naseem on the seventh anniversary of the crash, “The demonstration was conducted by Maj Gen Mahmud Durrani [who] explained every aspect of the exercise…During the lecture, while explaining a point, there was a mention of 90 days. So Gen Durrani jokingly said that don’t consider it [Gen Zia’s] 90 days. Thus a tremendous laughter broke out…”

Returning to Bahawalpur air base by helicopter from Tamewali, Gen Zia with his entourage stopped at the army mess for lunch. When boarding the C-130, as was his wont, he personally invited several others to accompany him on his VVIP aircraft. Ambassador Raphel accepted the invitation, and, after a brief hesitation, so did Brig Wassom.

Map showing the route taken by Pak-1 before it crashed across the Sutlej river near Basti Lal Kamal.
Map showing the route taken by Pak-1 before it crashed across the Sutlej river near Basti Lal Kamal.

It was to prove the final flight for everyone who boarded Pak-1. American journalist Jay Epstein’s account of Gen Zia’s death in a 1989 issue of Vanity Fair reads: “… villagers…saw Pak-1 lurching up and down in the sky, as if it were on an invisible roller coaster. After its third loop, it plunged directly towards the desert, burying itself in the soil. Then, it exploded and, as the fuel burnt, became a ball of fire.”

Indeed, almost all the principal actors involved in training and arming the Afghan mujahideen to fight the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan — arguably the biggest campaign of the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies over the past decade — were on the passenger manifest.

In the days that followed, speculation and rumour were rife. A missile hit, mid-air explosion, deadly gas leak, fire on board, etc — all possibilities made it into the newspapers. Sabotage was repeatedly mentioned by the civilian and military leaderships, including Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Gen Beg.

Declassified US State Department files reveal that Gen Beg, in an hour-long address to army officers in Rawalpindi on Aug 25, referred to Gen Zia’s death as a “conspiracy”. Although he alluded to “recent threatening statements by the Soviet spokesman and Russia”, he did not assign any explicit blame. In fact, he said: “Besides foreign agents, there might be some of our own people involved in this gruesome act, for no conspiracy can ever succeed without the cooperation of people from within.” On the same occasion, he also reiterated the military’s support for the civilian government and the upcoming Nov 16 elections.

Investigations began almost immediately. On Aug 19, US State Department announced it had put together a team to assist Islamabad in determining the cause of the crash. The six-member team arrived on Aug 22 and was taken to the crash site that had been secured by army personnel.

Dawn's Aug 23 edition reported that foreign and local experts could not understand how a mechanical fault could occur given that 14 technicians had checked the plane between the time it landed at and departed from Bahawalpur. Parts of the debris were also flown to the US for tests.

Crates of mangoes — immortalised as the ultimate Trojan horse in Mohammed Hanif’s novel based on Gen Zia’s death — were among the gifts presented to the late president at Bahawalpur. According to Dawn, “several gift-givers [who included a provincial minister and the then mayor of Bahawalpur] remained in police custody for at least eight hours”.

According to a BBC report, about 80 people, including ground crew were also detained for questioning.

The antecedents of the pilots, Wg Cdr Mashhood Hassan and Flt Lt Sajid were also probed and found to be impeccable. Captain Mashhood was considered an ace pilot, one that Gen Zia was actually very fond of flying with.

US State Department files reveal that Gen Beg, in an address to army officers on Aug 25, referred to Gen Zia’s death as a “conspiracy”. He said “there might be some of our own people involved in this gruesome act, for no conspiracy can ever succeed without the cooperation of people from within.”

‘Most probably sabotage’

On Oct 16, a 365-page red-bound technical report on the crash was presented to President Ghulam Ishaq Khan at a cabinet meeting. It had been prepared by a Board of Enquiry led by Air Commodore Abbas H. Mirza, and included Group Captain Sabahat Ali Khan (a C-130 pilot/specialist) and Gp Capt Zaheerul Hassan Zaidi (accident investigations expert), along with a team of technical and aviation experts from the US.

Gen Zia’s funeral procession on Aug 19, 1988. — White Star
Gen Zia’s funeral procession on Aug 19, 1988. — White Star

The report had arrived at its conclusions through a painstaking process of elimination. Examination of the wreckage clearly indicated that the plane had not disintegrated in midair; it had not been struck by a missile; nor had there been a fire on board — the only autopsy performed, that of Brig Wassom, showed no signs of soot in his trachea, indicating he had died before the fire ignited by the crash.

There was no evidence to support a power failure: the condition of the propeller blades indicated the engines were working at full speed. The electrical systems and fuel pumps were all working normally.

The possibility of mechanical failure was considered. However, the C-130 had two hydraulic systems independent of each other, and they were both working at the time of the crash. In short, this was an aircraft — of a type considered an extremely reliable workhorse — performing as expected on a clear, cloudless day. Yet it had inexplicably fallen out of the sky.

A chemical analysis of the wreckage, carried out at the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology in Islamabad, found foreign elements in unusual quantities. For instance, there were traces of pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), an explosive that has since been used in several terrorist attacks, including at least two whose objective was to down an airplane. Residues of antimony and phosphorus, not normally found in aircraft structures, fuel, etc were also present.

The elements found, according to the report, “could be employed to fire pressurised bottles containing poisonous gasses which could result in total or partial incapacitation of the pilots and other persons on the flight deck. The action of the gas would have had to be sudden and insidious so as to ensure that no person on the flight deck would have had time to don his oxygen mask”.

The report concluded that, “in the absence of a technical reason, the only other possible cause of the accident is the occurrence of a criminal act or sabotage”. It recommended that an investigation be ordered to determine the identity of the perpetrators.

Accounts of other pilots in the vicinity are also telling. The last words they heard from Wg Cmdr Mashhood were: “Stand by, stand by” in what seemed to be an uncharacteristically tense tone. Then, says Wg Cmdr Munawar, they heard the click click of the PTT (Push to Talk) switch, followed by a faint voice calling out: “Mashhood, Mashhood.” Then, complete silence.

Wing Commander Munawar Alam shows the logbook entry for his back-up C-130 flight on Aug 17, 1988. — White Star
Wing Commander Munawar Alam shows the logbook entry for his back-up C-130 flight on Aug 17, 1988. — White Star

At a press conference about the findings in the report, of which about 30 pages had been released to the public, Defence Secretary Ijlal Haider Zaidi said that Gen Zia’s C-130 had been guarded by both military and civilian security personnel during its stay at Bahawalpur air base. In response to a question, Air Cdre Mirza said there was no flight recorder on board.

The report concluded: “In the absence of a technical reason, the only other possible cause of the accident is the occurrence of a criminal act or sabotage”. It recommended an investigation to determine the identity of the perpetrators.

By Oct 31, it was being reported that the public might not, after all, get to see the entire investigation report “if found harmful to the country’s integrity and solidarity”.

Gen Zia and Gen Akhtar’s sons, as well as others, maintain that Gen Zia was displeased with Gen Beg’s attempts as vice-chief to take more control of the operational aspects of the army, and was planning to replace him with Lt Gen Mohammed Afzaal. That probably was a factor in Gen Beg being regarded with suspicion in the context of the air crash.

Despite multiple attempts, Gen Beg refused to give an interview. However, when contacted by Dawn, he was extremely bitter about the aspersions that had been cast on him for years, asking why he would not have taken over if he had played any role in the affair.

That is of little comfort to the families of those who died along with Gen Zia back in 1988, and they are still searching for answers.

Ironically, neither of the generals really wanted to be on the flight. Gen Akhtar was not from the armoured corps, and as such had no reason to be at the tank demo. His family maintains it was Brig Imtiaz Billa (one of the two principal conspirators behind Operation Midnight Jackal against Benazir Bhutto) who persuaded the CJCSC to go to Bahawalpur in order to discuss a reshuffle that Gen Zia was reportedly contemplating in the army leadership. “Brig Imtiaz was used to put my father on the plane,” says Mr Akhtar. “He was constantly in touch with him, and visited him a day or two before as well.”

Gen Zia was not planning to go either, but Maj Gen Mahmud Durrani kept insisting. “One of my father’s ADCs told me that following one of his repeated phone calls, he [Zia] swore and said, ‘What’s his problem? Why is he so keen that I go?’” recalls Ejazul Haq.

“Gen Zia and my father were the last two officers of the Pakistan Army commissioned in India,” says Humayun Akhtar, who along with his three brothers lived abroad until Gen Akhtar’s death. Back in August 1988, he was working as a consultant actuary in the US, but happened at the time to be visiting Pakistan as was his brother Haroon. “My parents were a very loving couple, and it was a devastating blow. My other two brothers also rushed home.”

They decided to settle in Pakistan, and over time built up one of the biggest business conglomerates in the country; two of the brothers, Mr Akhtar included, are of course also well-known politicians.

“We tried to push the investigation as far as we could,” he tells Dawn in the opulent, wood-panelled living room of his house in Lahore. “We worked very hard. Along the way, many [who were also interested in the facts behind the crash] became our friends, such as Jay Epstein and George Crile [the author of Charlie Wilson’s War]. But we realised we won’t be able to get anywhere.”

Meanwhile Group Captain Nauman, Wg Cmdr Mashhood’s brother, was told by his father not to pursue the matter. “He said to me, ‘I’ve already lost one son and I don’t want to lose another’.”

News of Gen Ziaul Haq’s death in Dawn’s Aug 18, 1988 edition. — White Star
News of Gen Ziaul Haq’s death in Dawn’s Aug 18, 1988 edition. — White Star

Evidence of a cover-up?

The families of both Gens Zia and Akhtar wanted to sue Lockheed, the manufacturers of Hercules C-130, for damages. “It’s not that we wanted money. We wanted them to prove there was nothing wrong with the aircraft. But we were stopped by [the general’s] friends in the US intelligence community who told us it was dangerous to pursue it. ‘Keep your eye on the ball, you have to live in the country’.”

They even approached a lawyer in the US, F. Lee Bailey — later O.J. Simpson’s defence attorney — who, upon hearing the details, described it as a case of a lifetime, according to Ejazul Haq. “Some days later the head of the Federal Aviation Authority invited him for lunch, which was highly unusual.”

Until that point, Nancy Ely-Raphel, the late ambassador’s wife, and Wassom’s wife had both expressed their support for the families of Gens Zia and Akhtar in their search for the truth. “And then, suddenly, Mr Bailey stopped taking our calls,” says Ejazul Haq. “Nancy changed her number and we couldn’t access her either. So we stopped pursuing the case.”

Dawn's attempts to contact Ms Ely-Raphel for this story were unsuccessful.

Several years later, Ejazul Haq says he received information from a military source about a PAF pilot officer, Akram Awan, who had been taken into custody by intelligence agencies some months earlier on suspicion of being involved in espionage against Pakistan for RAW and Mossad. Detained in a safe house with no access to newspapers, he was being interrogated by three intelligence officers, including Major Amir Khan (also of Operation Midnight Jackal fame). According to Ejazul Haq, a week or so after the C-130 crash, he was shown a video of Gen Zia’s funeral. “When he learnt that Major Gen M.H. Awan, his adoptive father, was one of the victims, he burst out crying uncontrollably and saying, ‘I didn’t know the bastards were going to use [the nerve gas] for this purpose!’

“The entire story then came tumbling out. He said someone from [a foreign embassy] was involved and that the gas had been transported through India, and even gave a confessional statement on camera to the effect.”

The very next day, one of the three intelligence officials was directly summoned to GHQ, bypassing Gen Hamid Gul who was DG ISI at the time. In Ejazul Haq’s telling, Gen Beg asked the official to turn over Awan’s statement and video confession to him, with the observation that matters had to be handled carefully and that the information would be released at the appropriate time.

There is yet more evidence of a cover-up. One of the enquiry board members Gp Capt Zaheer Zaidi, as confirmed to Dawn by several sources, was determined not to let matters end with the technical enquiry and had reportedly uncovered further evidence of sabotage.

According to Gen Zia’s son, Mr Zaidi wanted to write a book about the information he had collected, and sometime in the mid-‘90s approached Bob Woodward — co-author of All The President’s Men — to give him a synopsis and ask the celebrated writer to edit the book. “But by the time he returned to Pakistan, his report had already made its way to the intelligence agencies here via the Pentagon, and he was called in and harshly berated.”

Also, journalists such as Sandy Gall and Steve Levine visited Pakistan over the next few years, collecting information, conducting interviews etc with Ejazul Haq’s assistance, but no article or documentary saw the light of day. “Steve was so embarrassed that he stopped getting in touch. Finally, he came to meet me after Musharraf’s coup, and apologised profusely, saying that his boss had given him permission to do the story, but then later withdrew it.”

Zia crash report by Dawndotcom on Scribd

The foreign hand

Chief Martial Law Administrator Gen Ziaul Haq at GHQ on July 9, 1977 with USSR Ambassador S. Azimov. Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Sahibzada Yaqub Ali Khan can also be seen in the picture. — White Star
Chief Martial Law Administrator Gen Ziaul Haq at GHQ on July 9, 1977 with USSR Ambassador S. Azimov. Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Sahibzada Yaqub Ali Khan can also be seen in the picture. — White Star

Even if some elements in the Pakistan military were involved, however, as some of the families of those who died on Aug 17, 1988 believe, it was likely at the behest of one or more foreign powers. There were several who had both motive and means.

Gen Zia and his top military and intelligence personnel were at the time involved in what was the closing act of the decade-long Afghan jihad, with the Soviets’ complete withdrawal from Afghanistan less than six months away. The partnership between Pakistan and the US in arming and training the mujahideen resistance was finally paying off. But on a strategic level, matters were far more complex and fraught.

The Pakistani military, contrary to its own prime minister at the time, Mohammed Khan Junejo, did not want to rush into signing the Geneva Accords, preferring to wait until the composition of the Afghan government had been decided. The US, on the other hand, seemed more interested in the ouster of Soviet troops than in ensuring a stable government in Kabul. According to Ejazul Haq, Syed Fakhar Imam, the National Assembly speaker, told him about a meeting between Gen Zia and a visiting US delegation at which the Pakistan army chief “had given hell to the Americans. The US didn’t want Afghanistan to settle down, and my father wasn’t happy with the Geneva Accords.”

The US was also concerned about Gen Zia’s continued supply of weapons to Gulbadin Hekmatyar, who was once also the CIA’s most favoured mujahideen commander, but whom they had since come to see as harbouring dangerously anti-US views. Moreover, the wider regional situation was also moving in a direction that the US did not want. Militants from Pakistan had begun infiltrating India-held Kashmir, injecting a deadly new element into the indigenous uprising in the occupied region. It was clear that a new theatre of jihad, with Gen Zia’s blessing and ‘assistance’ was opening up.

As significant, if not more, were Gen Zia’s nuclear ambitions, which had become inconvenient now that the Afghan jihad was winding down. Describing it as “the dirty little secret of the Afghan war” in his book, George Crile writes that Gen Zia had extracted a concession early on from President Reagan that in return for working with the CIA against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the US would look the other way on the matter of the bomb.

Gen Zia with President Reagan.
Gen Zia with President Reagan.

But then in 1987, Arshad Pervez, a Pakistani-origin Canadian businessman believed to be Gen Zia’s agent was caught in Philadelphia while trying to buy 25 tons of a steel alloy crucial for building a nuclear bomb. There were furious demands in Congress to cut off aid to Pakistan. Given all these developments, could elements within the CIA have decided to curtail Gen Zia’s nuclear and regional ambitions once and for all?

Interestingly, a US State Department meeting held on Oct 26 to consider whether to recommend to Secretary of State George Schultz that an Accountability Review Board be convened to investigate the crash, unanimously decided against such an action. The proceedings were detailed in a memo to Mr Schultz.

Strangely, it also took nearly a year for an FBI team to arrive in Pakistan. “I think that was only to fulfill some legal requirement because American citizens had died on foreign soil,” says Mr Akhtar. “They did nothing.”

Gen Zia’s son concurs. “I gave them 26 names of people they should have interviewed. In the end, I asked them why they had come if all they were going to do was sightseeing.”

For its part, a US State Department document pertaining to the FBI visit from ambassador Robert Oakley to Mr Schultz records: “They appear satisfied with GOP cooperation…The one disappointment was refusal of COAS Beg to see them despite my urging and that of [Minister of Internal Security] General [Naseerullah] Babar. They found that the ongoing GOP investigation under Bandial has gone nowhere and is unlikely to ever do so.”

(Brig Naseem, for one, finds the notion utterly preposterous that the US may have been to blame. “Why would America kill its most obedient servant?”)

The Soviet Union’s KGB is another plausible suspect. A communiqué from the US embassy in Moscow to Mr Schultz soon after the plane crash reads: “Soviet Oriental Institute Afghan expert Yuriy Gankovskiy told [embassy officials] August 25 that Pakistan president Zia’s death might result in a more evenhanded Pakistani approach to the question of Afghanistan…The Soviets had been increasingly uncomfortable with the direction Zia had been taking on Afghanistan. Zia, he argued, had extremely close ties to Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami and thence to Gulbadin Hekmatyar.”

In the months leading up to the crash, the Soviet leadership had made its displeasure towards Pakistan clear, accusing it of obstructionism and violation of the terms of the Geneva Accords. In fact, a mere two days before, Dawn reported that the Soviets had declared that the “continuation of this policy by Pakistan cannot be further tolerated.”

Curiously enough, the US did not belabour the point or try to pin the blame on the Soviet Union, its only rival superpower. In fact, the US government decided to push the malfunction theory that its own experts had discredited in their joint report with Pakistani investigators.

Epstein, through his contacts in the US State Department, surmised that the truth “could undermine everything the US was trying to achieve by damaging détente, leading to armed confrontation on Pakistan’s borders or even destabilise the new and shaky Pakistan government.”

India also harboured a grudge against Pakistan, alleging it had been funnelling arms to the Sikh separatist movement and now was working to fan the flames of the Kashmiri resistance. Besides, it was well known that the Indian intelligence agency RAW had long had its assets in place in Pakistan.

A reliable workhorse

During his first government, Nawaz Sharif set up the Shafiqur Rehman Commission to investigate the crash. Neither Mr Akhtar nor Ejazul Haq has a copy in their possession. After a few years, the Commission issued a ‘secret report’ in which it accused elements in the military of having deliberately obstructed the investigation. For instance, PAF did not even give them access to the wreckage at the Multan air base.

“Nawaz Sharif used the investigation as a means of pressuring Gen Aslam Beg,” says a source. “The fact is, everyone wanted to stop it at a certain level because it could bring the entire army into disrepute.”

But there are many in the military that refuse to give credence to this version of events, and are even offended by it. Gen Agha Masood, who remains a staunch admirer of Gen Zia — he in fact lowered Gen Zia’s remains into the grave — and was also close to Gen Beg, emphatically denies any existence of a conspiracy.

He concedes that the general had internal enemies — “Bhutto and the Sindhi lot, not the Punjabis, Pathans and Baloch” — as well as external ones. “But if [foreign powers] wanted to kill him, they would have chosen an easier way of doing so.” He also points to the high-level security accorded to VVIPs which he believes makes it impossible to tamper with an aircraft carrying the army chief. According to him, the possibility of sabotage was never even discussed within the army’s officer cadre.

Brig Naseem is convinced it was a maintenance problem, resulting in a malfunction that brought down Pak-1. “Gen Zia would always ask why he was made to travel in such an aircraft.” This claim, however, is firmly refuted by Ejazul Haq who says his father had no qualms about flying C-130s: “We in fact went by C-130 to Lahore for my brother’s wedding, that too in extremely bad weather.”

Wg Cmdr Munawar, with 10,000 hours on the C-130s, vouches for the aircraft’s reliability and safety record. “The C-130 can fly even if one falls asleep at the controls.”

Thirty years on, Gen Zia’s death remains shrouded in mystery. Why was no effort made to unmask the perpetrators? Conversely, why was so much effort expended on suppressing incriminating evidence? Having examined the evidence, and spoken to multiple witnesses, one may ask; is it not time for Pakistan to reconcile with its past and confront the many truths that have never seen the light of day?