POLICE in the breakaway Caucasian region of the self-proclaimed Chechen republic co-operated with the Russian authorities yesterday to foil an attempt by four gunmen to make off with millions of dollars they had extorted by kidnapping the occupants of a school bus.
The hostages were released unharmed, and three of the hijackers were arrested while the fourth was shot by police marksmen.
By yesterday morning the bandits had already freed most of the 26 adults and children they had taken hostage on the road outside Vladikavkaz, in North Ossetia, on Thursday afternoon. But they were still holding three women and one man hostage when they transferred to a helicopter and took off from the south Russian spa town of Mineralniye Vody.
The criminals, ethnic Chechens, made for the Chechen republic - where Moscow law no longer reaches - and must have thought they had pulled off the perfect crime when they landed at the village of Bachayurt, near Grozny, with between dollars 4m (pounds 2.6m) and dollars 8m put up by the Russian central bank.
What they did not bargain for was that the Chechen and Russian authorities would, for once, work together. They were surprised in the woods around Bachayurt by Chechen commandoes.
Last December there was a similar hijacking attempt. Four gunmen kidnapped a group of schoolchildren in the city of Rostov-on-Don, extracted a dollars 10m ransom and took off by helicopter on an odyssey over the same area of southern Russia. They too were making for the Chechen republic but the helicopter pilot tricked them and brought them down on territory that was indisputably Russian, where they were immediately arrested.
The latest kidnappers 'learnt from the mistake made in December', an Interior Ministry official said. They demanded a helicopter without a crew, leading police to believe they were intending to pilot the aircraft themselves. Only at the last minute did they accept a professional pilot, thus delaying the moment when they had to announce their intended destination to the authorities.
Whether their failure will deter other hostage-takers remains to be seen. The Interior Ministry official was not hopeful. 'It is inevitable that this sort of thing should happen in the Caucasus, where guns are so easily available,' he said.
But the happy ending to the drama may help to bring Russia and the Chechen republic a little closer. Boris Yeltsin has refused to recognise the region's declaration of independence, and relations between Moscow and Grozny have been tense.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies