Kidnap saga ends with troops in pursuit

MOSCOW - A dramatic four-day helicopter kidnap ended last night when gunmen released their last hostages in a village near the Caspian Sea and fled pursued by Russian anti-terrorist forces, writes Andrew Higgins.

Russian television said that four kidnappers had set free two military pilots after landing in the republic of Degestan after a flight from the Russian resort of Mineralnye Vody.

The helicopter, stuffed with high explosives and dollars 10m ( pounds 6.7m) in ransom paid by the Russian government on Friday, was first commandeered last Thursday after the heavily armed kidnappers burst into High School No 25 in Rostov and seized a dozen teenagers. The last of the student hostages - two schoolboys - and a bus driver were set free yesterday afternoon before the flight to Dagestan. The helicopter was then shadowed as it flew across southern Russia by two government craft carrying members of an elite police unit.

The kidnappers are said to have planned the kidnapping with such precision they brought a machine to check for forged banknotes. Confusion, however, surrounds their identities and motives. They originally said they wanted to go to Iran. Tehran condemned the hostage-taking.

Their whereabouts last night were unclear. After nearly three days grounded by bad weather at Mineralnye Vody, they flew to the village of Khasavyurt in Dagestan, an autonomous Russian republic on the Caspian Sea, and let the two pilots go.

Government officials suggested they would use force to end the drama. 'The situation is now much easier because there are no children and we shall take measures soon connected with the completion of the operation,' said a government leader.

(Photograph omitted)