Russian airmen escape from Afghanistan

Hostages recall overpowering Talaban guards and daredevil flight to Gulf. Phil Reeves in Moscow reports

A year after they were taken hostage by Afghan fighters, seven Russian airmen were heading triumphantly home last night after reportedly overpowering their armed guards and escaping in their aircraft following a daring low-level flight across the desert.

Their freedom marks an end to an episode that has long rankled in Moscow, and which produced several fruitless diplomatic missions as well as a United Nations resolution demanding that the Russians' captors, militiamen from Afghanistan's Talaban opposition, "immediately and unconditionally" release them.

Speaking in the United Arab Emirates yesterday, where they landed after their escape, the Russians described how they flew out of Afghanistan in their huge Ilyushin 76 cargo plane at little more than roof-top height to avoid radar detection.

Reports said they had persuaded their guards to allow them to carry out maintenance work on the aircraft, then pounced on the three men supervising them and took off - despite a short run-way. "We went over the smallest details of our plan many times and understood the extent of the risk," the captain, Vladimir Sharpatov, told the Itar-Tass news agency. "But we had the help of fate, fortune and just good luck."

Viktor Raizanov, ground engineer, said: "We are free, nothing else is important. Our families and children are waiting for us today. I also want to see my dog."

After empty promises of freedom followed numerous diplomatic missions, the airmen's hopes of a negotiated liberation from detention in the southern city of Kandahar were dulled. "We were promised to be released very many times but nothing would happen," Yuri Vshivtsev, the radio operator, said.

But on Friday the men saw their best chance of escape.

"The chance was very good and we couldn't miss it," Mr Vshivtsev said, adding that they escaped "very suddenly and very deceptively. It wasn't dependent only on us, I think it was dependent on God."

Mr Vshivtsev said after three failed attempts to start up the engines, Talaban leaders left them with three junior guards. The engines eventually started and the plane took off, narrowly missing two Talaban vehicles which rushed to block their path.

"It was a little late, about five or three seconds. We passed over the vehicles at the end of the runway," he said. A militia jet fighter and helicopter had chased the fleeing aircraft but could not catch it, a Talaban spokesman said.

The Russians were taken hostage last August after their aircraft, from the Tatarstan-based Aerostan company, was forced down by a Talaban fighter plane. It was carrying arms from Albania to Afghanistan, a consignment which the Talaban said proved that Russia was providing military support to President Burhanuddin Rabbani's government. Since then, Talaban leaders have been trying to use the hostages to attempt to pressure Moscow into releasing prisoners captured during the Soviet Union's war with Afghanistan.

The news of their freedom prompted speculation that Talaban leaders deliberately let them go after striking a secret deal with Moscow, although a rebel spokesman described it as nothing more than a "dare devil attempt which succeeded".

The news was warmly received in the Kremlin, which dispatched a deputy prime minister to escort them home.

It was also welcomed by US senator Hank Brown, a Republican from Colorado, who met Talaban representatives and the Russians last week, and claims to have persuaded the Afghans to allow their prisoners to visit their aircraft to carry out maintenance work.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions