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.
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