IN our part of the world, sometimes price hike is dictated by the greediness of shopkeepers and not by government directives. On Jan 30, 1974 it came to light that ration depot holders of Karachi had unilaterally forced a profit margin of 17.50 percent on the sale of wheat flour. It was a lot more than allowed by the Sindh Food Department. The official rate of flour was 57 paisa per seer that allowed those who ran the depots a profit of 5.90pc. However, they had, on their own, raised the price to 62 paisa per seer, which was almost double the permissible limit. Apparently, it happened due to a controversy raging between the food department and the licencees on whether jute bag containing wheat should count towards the overall cost of the commodity for the purpose of determining the margin of profit for the depot holders.

It was a domestic issue. But that week Pakistan became the focus of international media’s attention when on Feb 2, three armed Palestinian men seized a Greek ship ‘Vori’ berthed at Karachi (West Wharf) and threatened to blow up the vessel unless two Palestinian commandos sentenced to death in Greece were released. They locked up the chief officer and chief engineer of the ship as hostages in the captain’s cabin. They had captured the captain of the ship as well but released him after his health deteriorated. The ship had entered Karachi recently bringing sugar to Pakistan from Brazil. It had a crew of 33 out of which 10 were Arabs from Sudan, Syria and Egypt. At the request of the men who were identified as members of a guerilla movement the crew was served with refreshments. The Pakistani government immediately began negotiations with them.

Later, the three men held a press conference at the docks from the small window of the cabin where they had locked themselves up with the two captives. Covering their faces with woolen mufflers, they shouted at the top of their voices to reply to newsmen’s questions and produced the two captives before the media to show that humane treatment was meted out to them. In their opening statement they denied the reports that their action was designed to sabotage the Islamic Summit [being held at Lahore]. The men reiterated that they stood for emancipation of Muslims throughout the world, adding they had the highest admiration and respect for Pakistan because the country had always stood for the cause of Muslims.

On Feb 4, the curtain was brought down on the suspenseful and thrilling 32 hours of Pakistan’s first experience of sea-jacking when the armed men ended their siege of the ship, freed the two Greek hostages, and were safely deported to Cairo en route to Libya shortly before midnight. It was made possible through the efforts of the Pakistan’s federal government, the ambassadors of Egypt, Libya and Syria and a PLO representative in Karachi who had a hectic day having a round of talks with the hijackers for a little over seven hours on Feb 4. After being persuaded, the men stepped down from the demand of immediate unconditional release of Palestinian commandos from Greece and reconciled themselves to the commutation of their death sentence with firm commitment to further negotiating the question of their release.

Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2024

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