Hijacking of Russian plane ends peacefully

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A Chechen gunman who seized a Russian airliner surrendered to Israeli authorities Sunday and all 58 people on board were safe, a military official said.

A Chechen gunman who seized a Russian airliner surrendered to Israeli authorities Sunday and all 58 people on board were safe, a military official said.

Army Col. Ofer Ophir said the lone hijacker was in Israeli custody and all the passengers had been removed from the plane.

The Vnukovo Airlines plane landed at a military air base in Uvda, in Israel's southern desert, early Sunday morning after being commandeered during a flight from southern Russia to Moscow. The plane refueled in Baku, Azerbaijan, before reaching Israel.

Israel, Russia and Azerbaijan had said initially that up to four hijackers were on board and were threatening to blow up the plane.

But there was only one lone gunman, and he surrendered, Israeli authorities said.

As the hijacking ended, Prime Minister Ehud Barak's plane reversed course for a second time and headed back toward the United States, where he was scheduled to meet U.S. President Bill Clinton on Sunday.

Barak left Israel on Saturday night. But at a stopover in London, he decided to return to Israel to deal with the hijacking crisis. He was still in the air as the hijacking approached a resolution, and decided to turn around and head back to London and on to Washington, said David Zisso, Barak's media adviser at the Defense Ministry.

The hijacking began moving toward a peaceful resolution at about 9 a.m. (0700 GMT), three hours after the plane landed in Israel.

At that time, the captain of the Vnukovo Airlines plane came down a stairway and handed over weapons to Israeli security forces, said army spokesman Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey.

At the same time, a hijacker also came down the stairs, and was met by a vehicle that took him to the terminal building, Kitrey added.

Kitrey and other Israeli officials initially said the hijackers acted in support of the Palestinian uprising. But later he said that information was incorrect, and that the hijacking was part of the ongoing conflict between Chechnya and Russia.

"It's a dispute between Chechnya and Russia," Kitrey said.

Israel initially refused the plane permission to land, and was particularly concerned about the hijackers' initial insistence on landing at Ben-Gurion international airport near Tel Aviv, the country's main airport.

While the plane circled over the Mediterranean Sea, an Israeli Air Force jet flew nearby. Eventually, the plane was allowed to land after the Russian pilot said he had fuel left for "slightly more than an hour."

The aircraft was seized Saturday night shortly after takeoff from Makhachkala, the capital of the southern Russian region of Dagestan in the Caucasus Mountains. It was headed for Moscow, but the hijackers diverted the airplane to Baku, Azerbaijan, where it refueled before heading toward Israel.

Most of those on the plane were believed to be from Dagestan.

"One of the hijackers, together with the bombs, is in the cabin. I do not know how many of them are in the passenger cabin. They demanded to land in Baku and then only in Tel Aviv. They refuse to fly anywhere else and promise to blow up the plane," the pilot said over the plane's radio.

While the plane was in Baku, officials negotiated with a hijacker and agreed to refuel the plane. During the negotiations, Azerbaijani troops and police ringed the dark airport, which had been closed for the night.

"They told us to refuel the plane and no questions. They threatened to blow up the plane," said Sadir Ilyasov, deputy head of Azerbaijan Airlines, who was called in to help with negotiations.

The Chechens fought a bloody independence war against Russia in 1994-96, which ended in a Russian retreat and an uneasy peace treaty.

Russia sent its army into the tiny southern region again in 1999, after Islamic rebels based there invaded neighboring Dagestan. Russian forces have recaptured Chechnya, but rebels continue to wage deadly hit-and-run attacks on the Russian troops.