Hijacked ship creeps towards Istanbul

HUGH POPE

Istanbul

The scratchy voice on the ship-to-shore telephone from the hijacked ferry Avrasya is that of the leader of the pro-Chechen gunmen holding about 200 seamen, Russian tourists and traders hostage in the Black Sea.

It is also something of an echo from the bloody wars of Russia's past. Mohammed Tokcan and his half-dozen gunmen are known to come from a disciplined and motivated community of Turkish citizens descended from more than a million people forced to flee Tsarist and Soviet conquests of the Caucasus in the past century. "We have done this in the name of unity and independence of the North Caucasus state [of 1918]," Mr Tokcan said in one of many confident telephone interviews on Turkish television as the ship, seized in the port of Trabzon on Tuesday, steamed west at a steady 10 knots towards Istanbul.

Mr Tokcan vowed to blow up the privately-owned, Turkish-rented 3,300- ton Panamanian-flag vessel in Istanbul's busy Bosphorus strait if Russian troops did not stop their assault on Chechen hostage-takers holed up in a Dagestan village.

However last night, in an apparent softening of the gunmen's stance, one of the captors said that it was possible all the hostages would be released when the ship arrived in Istanbul, provided that security forces did not intervene.

Turkish officials warned of heavy seas and the dangers of Avrasya's lack of fuel, but the captain and hijackers said everybody on board was well, eating and sleeping in their cabins "as normal". The ship is expected in Istanbul today.

The ship was seized while passengers were boarding and nobody is sure of the numbers: estimates say there are from 100 to 150 Russians, about 40 Turks, 40 Turkish crew and a sprinkling of other former Soviet nationalities. The only casualty so far reported has been a Turkish port official, slightly wounded in the foot when he initially tried to oppose the hijacking.

Mr Tokcan and his accomplices won their battle spurs two years ago fighting in the Caucasus on the same side as the Russians. They became some of the best-known of 200 Turkish citizens who fought on the side of the mostly Muslim Abkhaz against the government of Georgia, according to sources in Turkey's north Caucasus community. During the fighting, Mr Tokcan, who said he was descended from Abkhaz ancestors, became close to Shamil Basayev, the celebrated Chechen warrior who planned last year's brazen hostage-raid on a Russian hospital in Budyennovsk. Turkish television even broadcast pictures of Mr Basayev showing Mr Tokcan a ceremonial sword during a recent trip to Chechnya.

Mr Tokcan has hinted to interviewers by ship radio that the order to seize the Avrasya came from outside, perhaps Mr Basayev himself, and his demands have concentrated on helping the Chechens.

Many Turks feel sympathy for the struggle for independence of their fellow Muslims in Chechnya, but the Turkish foreign ministry spokesman, Omer Akbel, condemned the hijacking as a terrorist act. "We believe the Chechen problem should be settled by peaceful means, and we support Russian territorial integrity," he said.

The hijackers earlier promised to let the Turkish hostages free before blowing up the ship, but left the fate of the Russians unclear. The Turkish security chief said his men would intervene if there was actual danger of lives being lost.

Mr Akbel said Turkey's strong stance against the hijacking should reassure Russia about where its loyalties lay. Ankara has something of a love-hate relationship with Moscow, their mutual commercial interests offset by suspicions about each other's intentions towards the mostly Turkic-speaking Muslim minorities of the ex-Soviet Union.

Russian bitterness was apparent in a remark by Tatyana Samolis, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. She told the Interfax news agency that, on more than one occasion, the service had warned Russian leaders that the Turkish authorities were "conniving with the Chechens".

She said: "One of the main responsibilities of foreign intelligence is to collect information about dangers threatening Russian security, and about the sincerity of the statements made by foreign countries in relations to Russia."

The Turkish spokesman, Mr Akbel, said: "Our long experience shows that none of these [terrorist actions] can be condoned" - speaking with more than half an eye, no doubt, on Turkey's own image problem over the bloody conflict in its mainly Kurdish south-east.

Turkey yesterday showed reporters the bodies of 11 pro-government Kurdish militiamen massacred on a mountain road by the Tigris river. They had been killed in an apparent ambush by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) on Monday.

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