Chechen hijackers seize plane with 170 on board

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The Independent Online

Two men with knives claiming to be Chechens hijacked a Russian plane with some 170 passengers yesterday and forced the pilot to fly from Istanbul to Medina, in Saudi Arabia. They are demanding an end to the war in Chechnya, according to a Russian airlines official.

Two men with knives claiming to be Chechens hijacked a Russian plane with some 170 passengers yesterday and forced the pilot to fly from Istanbul to Medina, in Saudi Arabia. They are demanding an end to the war in Chechnya, according to a Russian airlines official.

The hijackers took over the plane after a fight by the cockpit in which one person was injured and the aircraft fell 1,300 feet before it was stabilised. Enis Oksuz, the Turkish Transport Minister, said: "There are claims that bombs are on board, but it's not possible to say whether they are there or not.''

Saudi security forces surrounded the plane at Medina and negotiations began with the hijackers. None of the 162 passengers and 12 crew on the Vnukovo Airlines Tupolev 154, which had been on a scheduled flight from Istanbul to Moscow, were allowed to leave. Russian officials were quoted on Russian television as saying that the hijackers were demanding to fly on to Afghanistan. The Interfax news agency, citing Turkish security services, said there might be three hijackers, naming them as I and S Arsayev, and D Magomerdzyam. It said 94 passengers are Russians and the rest are foreigners, mostly Turks.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin set up a special team to deal with the hijacking. The Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, after talking to his Saudi counterpart, Saud al-Faisal, said: "The plane and passengers must be returned to Russia and the terrorists handed over to the Russian authorities.''

Chechens have carried out few operations outside Chechnya during the present war with Russia. However, in the first war in 1994-96, guerrillas made bloody forays into Russia in which they killed hostages.

Russia has portrayed the war in Chechnya as a battle with Islamic terrorists, so the hijacking may benefit Moscow rather than the rebels. Chechen Press, a news agency in Tbilisi, said: "The official structures of Chechnya do not have any links to this incident. Hostage-taking and blackmail are not our way of fighting.'' It claimed that it might be the work of lone individuals or an anti-Chechen propaganda ploy by Russia.

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