Hijackers surrender to Turkish navy

Hostage crisis: As ship's crew and passengers are freed unharmed, Yeltsin praises the men who flattened rebel-held village
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The Independent Online
HUGH POPE

Istanbul

Seven pro-Chechen gunmen who hijacked a Black Sea ferry surrendered just after nightfall last night. All 200 passengers on board, mostly Russian tourists and traders, apparently were safe.

Surrendering three days after seizing the ferry in the Turkish port of Trabzon, the gunmen were taken in a launch to a naval base. The hijackers had already dropped demands for an end to the Russian assault on the Chechen hostage-takers in Dagestan. They freed 13 infirm hostages during the day, including the one person injured in the hijacking.

"We are like dynamite. We are ready to blow up," one hijacker had snapped over the radio, when talks took a bad turn. But the atmosphere had a sweetness at most other times. The chief hijacker, Muhammed Tokcan, called the admiral shadowing him "my commander", while the admiral replied with comments like "don't worry, my dear."

The hijackers spent the afternoon negotiating by radio outside the entrance to the Bosphorus strait. Their white ferry circled slowly between grey Turkish frigates, coastguard cutters and fishing boats commandeered by camera crews and groups of Turks who supported the hijackers.

While the government was demanding the hijackers surrender, the groups of supporters gathered at both sides of the mouth of the Bosphorus to dance Caucasian jigs and cheer.

At a big Islamist anti-Russian demonstration after Friday prayers at Istanbul's Beyazit mosque, demonstrators shouted: "Chechnya will be the Russians' graveyard."

Many suspect the hijackers have an Islamist background, since as their hand-signs were the same as those of violent fundamentalists and their weapons are of the type found in raids on Islamist training camps. Mr Tokcan is wanted by the police over a bomb attack on a pair of businessmen in Trabzon who allegedly refused to pay him protection money.

Aware of the need to prove its anti-terrorist credentials, Turkey toughened its position towards the hijackers' demand to sail down the Bosphorus to a press conference.

"The militants must surrender and trust in Turkish justice," the caretaker Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, said after a meeting with military chiefs. The Chechen leader, Dzokhar Dudayev, said the hijackers had made their point and that further resistance would only harm the Chechen cause.

The lasting memory of the hijacking for most Turks will be the discovery of how many people in the country can trace their roots to the Caucasus - 3 to 8 million of the country's 65 million people - and how many turned out to support the Chechens. As President Suleyman Demirel said: "We cannot escape our history."

The hijacked ferry was called the Avrasya, or Eurasia, an irony lost on few Turkish commentators. The name symbolised the hopes in the early 1990s for a pivotal region, joining former Soviet Muslim states, Black Sea countries and the Middle East. Instead, the seizure of the Avrasya showed up all the Christian-Muslimcracks, not to mention the contradictions in Turkey itself.

n Ankara (AP) -- Necmettin Erbakan, leader of the Welfare Party, the Islamic party that won elections last month, gave up trying to form a governing coalition. Mr Demirel asked Mrs Ciller to try to put together another coalition.

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