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Hijackers hold out 'for homeland'

Chechen gunmen stepped up the war against Russia last night, hijacking a Turkish Cypriot airliner with 101 people on board.

German commando units surrounded the Boeing 757 belonging to North Cyprus Turkish Airlines as it landed in Munich. Up to four Chechens, armed with handguns, demanded an interpreter and tense negotiations were taking place as the authorities prepared for a night-long siege.

The hijackers gave no clear indications of their motives, but a representative of the airline said they wanted to "highlight the situation in their homeland".

They seized control of the plane shortly before it landed in Istanbul after its journey from Ercan, in Northern Cyprus.

The pilot was then forced to fly to Sofia, where the Bulgarian authorities allowed the plane to land and refuel.

At that point, the hijackers pledged to release all passengers and crew when the aircraft reached Munich, believed to be its final destination.

"Bulgarian authorities said the hijackers . . . informed them that they were going to release the hostages in Munich," said Mehmet Ali Irtemcelik, the Turkish ambassador in Sofia.

Almost an hour after the plane's arrival in Germany, there was no sign that the hijackers were in a hurry to fulfil their promise.

Turkish authorities believe the four men travelled to Northern Cyprus, probably via Turkey, under Russian passports. They are presumed to be activists linked to the Chechen troops who scored a stunning victory against Russian forces in Grozny this week.