Saudi security forces surround hijacked Russian aircraft

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Saudi security forces have taken positions around a hijacked Russian plane as negotiations resumed today to end a standoff with Chechens who forced the aircraft to land in the holy city of Medina.

Saudi security forces have taken positions around a hijacked Russian plane as negotiations resumed today to end a standoff with Chechens who forced the aircraft to land in the holy city of Medina.

The aircraft, which had 174 people on board, was hijacked from Turkey yesterday and forced to land in Saudi Arabia. Hours later, 46 hostages were freed or escaped.

After talks broke down for hours, Saudi authorities resumed negotiations with the hijackers, the official Saudi Press Agency reported. The hijackers were armed with knives and claimed to have a bomb.

After landing, security forces surrounded the aircraft, said Abdul Fatah Mohammad Atta, the Medina airport manager. But a Saudi security official said there was no intention of raiding the plane.

Reports on the number of hijackers, identified as Chechens, varied from two to four.

It is unclear what the hijackers want. Saudi officials said they had had earlier asked to fly to Afghanistan. Russian Embassy official Igor Kremnev told Russia's NTV television that the hijackers' demands were unclear.

An official at Medina airport said the hijackers had earlier asked authorities to refuel the plane and prepare it for a long flight but later changed their minds. He did not say where the hijackers were planning to leave to.

The hijacking began 30 minutes after the plane, a Tu-154 from Vnukovo Airlines, took off yesterday from Istanbul's Ataturk International airport en route to Moscow, with 162 passengers and 12 crew members on board.

The hijackers identified themselves as rebels from the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya, officials said.

But the official Chechen website said Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov denied that his government was responsible.

"The seizure of hostages and blackmail are not our methods of leading battle," the Chechen representative office in Turkey was quoted as saying.

At one point during the flight, a fight between the hijackers and a passenger at the entrance to the cockpit sent the plane on a terrifying plunge of 400 meters (1,300 feet), Turkish Transport Minister Enis Oksuz said. He said the pilot managed to stabilize the plane.

The plane eventually arrived in Medina, a city filled with Muslim pilgrims preparing to go home after the annual hajj pilgrimage. The pilots immediately locked themselves inside the cockpit.

Shortly after landing, the hijackers freed about 17 people, mostly the elderly, women and children, and 15 other later escaped from the plane's rear exit, news reports said.

By midday, nearly 17 hours after the hijacking began, a total of 45 hostages had left the plane, state Saudi television reported. But it did not say if all had been freed or had escaped. Russia's NTV quoted Kremnev as saying that 46 people were released, including a Russian woman who was in an ""anxious state." Five of those released were being treated in hospital. NTV said 25 of the freed passengers were Russian.

Ali Abbas, a doctor at Medina's King Fahd Hospital, said that four Turks and a Russian crew member who was stabbed in a scuffle with the hijackers were hospitalized.

Saudi television showed women and children inside an airport lounge. Most looked well, but some were obviously tired.

The airport officials said the hijackers allowed food and beverages to be taken aboard the plane. The passengers were tired and uncomfortable, but appeared to be otherwise well, the officials said.

A Saudi team of negotiators had difficulty communicating with the hijackers, who spoke neither English or Arabic, Atta said. Later, a Chechen pilgrim was taken to the control tower to translate. The two sides communicated over walkie-talkies before the halt to negotiations.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, according to a Russian report, spoke to his Saudi counterpart Saud al-Faisal by telephone, asking for the plane and hijackers to be returned to Russia.

At Moscow's Vnukovo Airport, anxiety gripped relatives and friends waiting for loved ones as confusing information about the hijacking blared from TV sets and loudspeakers.

"I'm shaking all over," said Alexander, a 26-year-old man holding a red rose for his wife. The man, who did not give his surname, said he learned of the hijacking from a television at the airport, and tried in vain to get details from airport officials.

Chechen separatists' violent campaign to break free of Russia often has spilled over the republic's borders in hijackings and raids, with Turkey a frequent site for audacious actions.

At least 25,000 Chechens live in Turkey, and the separatists have many Turkish supporters.

The hijackings began in 1990, when Chechen separatists' hopes and boldness were rising as the Soviet Union began showing signs of collapse. One of those hijackings marked the beginning of the notoriety of Shamil Basayev, who claimed to have masterminded it. He later became one of Chechnya's major warlords, lauded by his supporters and despised by the Kremlin.

Chechen rebels launched several terrifying attacks on regions of Russia bordering the republic. The most notorious was the 1995 raid led by Basayev on the town of Budyonnovsk, in which some 2,000 hostages were held at a hospital.

Russian troops unsuccessfully stormed the hospital twice, then reached an agreement to free the hostages and the raiders escaped into the mountains.

Another feared warlord, Salman Raduyev, led a raid on the Russian town of Kizlyar the next year, taking hundreds of hostages. He negotiated safe passage back to Chechnya.