Three die in Saudi commandos' raid on plane hijacked to Medina by Chechen 'humanitarians'

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Three people died and seven were injured yesterday when Saudi commandos stormed the Russian airliner hijacked by Chechens to draw attention to their war with Russia. A dozen soldiers climbed ladders and smashed their way into the plane after negotiations broke down with the hijackers, who had knives. A stewardess and two men - a hijacker and a Turkish passenger - were killed.

Three people died and seven were injured yesterday when Saudi commandos stormed the Russian airliner hijacked by Chechens to draw attention to their war with Russia. A dozen soldiers climbed ladders and smashed their way into the plane after negotiations broke down with the hijackers, who had knives. A stewardess and two men - a hijacker and a Turkish passenger - were killed.

The hijackers, who may have been led by a former Chechen interior minister, had taken over the plane with 174 people on board soon after it left Istanbul for Moscow on Thursday and diverted it to the holy city of Medina in Saudi Arabia. Negotiations were hampered because they spoke neither Arabic nor English.

"The goal was to save the lives of the passengers and the crew with the least number of casualties possible," the Saudi Interior Ministry said. "[The attack] concluded in record time after the hijackers threatened to blow up the plane."

A Russian stewardess was killed in the opening moments of the assault, said paramedics. "As soon as the woman opened the door she was knifed to death," one said. Both of the men who died were shot.

In Moscow, aides to Sergei Yastrzhemsky, the Kremlin spokesman on Chechnya, said at least one man was being held, but they believed up to four hijackers may have been involved.

The assault force, armed with semi-automatic weapons and wearing bullet-proof vests, boarded a bus to approach the silver-coloured Vnukovo Airlines plane, parked in a isolated part of Medina airport. Some 46 people had already been released or had escaped.

At one point, the hijackers taped a Chechen flag to the side of the plane. Aftayeva Fariza, a representative of the Chechen government in Jordan, said the reason for the hijacking was "a humanitarian issue". She added: "The demands of the hijackers included the halting the genocide in Chechnya and sitting at the negotiating table with [Chechen] President [Aslan] Maskhadov to find a peaceful solution to the conflict."

Ms Fariza identified the hijackers as Aslambek Arsayev, a former Chechen interior minister, and his brother, Supian. She said she had been told this by a third brother, Adam, who was not involved. Other Chechen sources said the attack was not officially sanctioned.

In Moscow, the Interfax news agency said the hijacker who died was a younger member of the Arsayev family, and Supian Arsayev was arrested.

Major Vyatcheslav Izmailov, an expert on hostage-taking in Chechnya, told The Independent he knew Aslambek Arsayev, when he was the Chechen shariat interior minister between 1997 and 1999, as well as his brother Adam, who was chairman of presidential commission on missing people. "Neither was in the first rank of Chechen leaders, but I am sure they were both involved in trading Russian civilian hostages for criminals in jail in Russia," he said.

The hijacking may reflect growing desperation in Chechnya. Despite the death of thousands of Chechens since the Russian invasion in 1999 the conflict attracts little international attention. In contrast to the first war with the Russians in 1994-96, the Chechens have staged few operations outside their country. This is because Chechen leaders are well aware their reputation was badly damaged by the ransom kidnaps, sometimes fatal, of foreign hostages.

Mr Yastrzhembsky said the storming of the plane was approved by the Russian government. Igor Ivanov, the Foreign Minister, said Russia wanted the hijackers and the plane to be returned. Russia has also warned Turkey about giving sanctuary to Chechen rebels.

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