Turkey gets tough with ship hijackers

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The leader of hijackers holding about 200 hostages on a Black Sea ferry agreed early today to a Turkish demand not to enter the strategic Bosphorus strait.

Overtaken by the events in Dagestan and under pressure by the Turkish authorities and the Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, the hijackers dropped their threat to blow up the ship if Russia did not end its assault on Chechen militants who had been holding Russians hostages in the village of Pervomayskoye.

"We'll do what the Turkish side wants us to do. They are our elders," the hijackers' leader, Muhammed Tokcan, said on cellular phone from the Avrasya ferry. "Why should we go into the Bosphorus? We have nothing against Turkey."

The ship was due to arrive at the northern entrance of the strait at 4am (0200 GMT) after a 600 mile trip from the eastern Turkish port of Trabzon. The hijackers, mostly Turks with ethnic roots in the Caucasus, seized the boat in Trabzon on Tuesday night.They have threatened to blow the ferry up in the Bosphorus, along with any Russians on board.

A naval officer said two frigates and a destroyer were shadowing the Avrasya. "We will definitely not let the ferry go into the Bosphorus . . . We are taking all necessary measures," the Maritime Minister, Mehmet Sevigen, said. "If the ferry does not stop or is not stopped before going into the strait, we will stop it." Preparations, including the designation of a safe "holding" area outside the strait, were under way in Istanbul.

The Foreign Ministry dismissed an offer from President Boris Yeltsin to send Russian special forces to help to storm the ferry, whose Turkish captain says it is carrying 114 Russian passengers. The 40-man crew is almost all Turkish, as are another 43 passengers.

Television stations have turned the crisis into a live 24-hour drama, so much so that officials in charge of negotiations had trouble getting through on ship-to-shore radio telephones. "Our media is unbelievable, unstoppable, out of control," lamented an official. The hijackers also have an unusual attitude: the ferry captain said they have been zapping through the channels on a television set on the bridge to check on the coverage they are getting.

They faxed Hurriyet newspaper to complain at a headline saying "the terror of Chechnya" had spread to Turkey, and an editor at Cumhuriyet had to defend his judgement that the hijacking of innocents was terrorism. "You talk about us as terrorists. If you are a journalist, you have to be honourable and tell the truth," railed a hijacker who spoke Turkish but said he was a Chechen.

It is thought that two of the hijackers may be Chechens and another from Abkhazia, a Muslim part of Georgia. The five others are thought to be Turkish citizens of Caucasian descent, including the leader, Mr Tokcan, whose father is as an imam in their native Abkhazia.

All have fought in the Caucasus, and Mr Tokcan, who got his military training as a Turkish commando fighting the Kurds, is a close friend of the Chechen hero Shamil Basayev. Mr Tokcan's Chechen fiancee is said to have been killed during Russian attacks on Chechnya.

Turks of Caucasian origin have voiced sympathy with the hijackers, helped by the fact that the only casualty so far has been a Turkish harbour official slightly wounded in the storming of the Avrasya. Most other Turks also sympathise with their Chechen fellow Muslims.

Tansu Ciller, the caretaker Prime Minister, has also kept a low profile, leaving the crisis in the hands of a team in the security directorate. Turkey is still trying to form a new government after the indecisive elections on 24 December.