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.

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmSo what makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
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

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

Maths Teacher

£22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week