MOSCOW (AP) â€” Overcome with tears and relief, passengers who survived a bloody 22-hour ordeal aboard a hijacked Russian jetliner returned home Saturday from Saudi Arabia to friends and relatives in Turkey and Russia.
A Russian government airliner brought 121 people, most of them Russians, to Moscow's Vnukovo Airport â€” their destination Thursday when Chechens hijacked their flight from Istanbul in an apparent attempt to draw attention to what they call Russian atrocities in the rebel region.
``I'm so glad to see you, I don't know what to say,'' said Valentin Malofeyev, greeting his wife, Olga, one of the passengers, with five pink roses at the airport in Moscow.
Stewardess Svetlana Ivaniva's 6-year-old son, Pasha, who wasn't told about the hijacking, clutched his aunt's leg and asked, ``When will mama come out? I want to see mama.''
Some 50 other people on board the hijacked plane were flown home Saturday to Turkey.
Saudi special forces stormed the plane Friday in Medina, Saudi Arabia, after the hijackers threatened to blow up the aircraft. A Russian flight attendant, Yulia Fomina, 27, and a Turkish passenger, Gursel Kambal, 27, were killed, along with one of the hijackers.
Russian officials praised the crew, who locked the hijackers out of the cockpit by holding a broken door handle while the hijackers chopped at the door with an emergency ax.
``If the crew had acted differently, things could have been much worse,'' said First Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko, who was among officials greeting crew and passengers with flowers.
Pilot Nikolai Vinogradov said on RTR government television that he feared the hijackers would force them to fly to Afghanistan, whose hard-line Islamic government is an international outcast.
Passenger Svetlana Yarova recalled a late-night exchange with one of the hijackers after her 11-year-old son fell asleep. ``I said, ``Look at him, think about what you're doing before it's too late. He's not guilty of anything.' He said, 'But our women aren't guilty of anything either.'''
Just before the storming, she said, ``There was a deadly silence. It was the worst moment.'' Then the commandos entered and flight attendant Ivaniva shouted at the passengers to lie down. People dove to the floor.
At that moment, Kambal was shot, said Baki Kabak, one of the Turkish passengers, and one of the hijackers fatally stabbed Fomina, Saudi officials said.
``We have lived through a dark time. ... They were going to kill us all,'' Kabak said, his voice choked with emotion.
The pilot said the cockpit crew left through an emergency exit just before the raid.
``The enraged terrorists broke the door of the cockpit. I gave the crew an order to leave the cockpit because indirectly through the talks ... I understood that in literally a few seconds they would help us,'' Vinogradov said on ORT television.
Passengers praised the Saudis. ``We all could have died,'' said Ali Copoglu. ``It was definitely a good operation.'' Saudi officials said they had carried out the operation with a minimum of casualties.
But Kambal's relatives expressed outrage. ``It was the stupidity of the Saudi police,'' said Mehmet Kambal, an uncle. ``We will demand compensation.''
Russian television showed flight attendant Fomina's coffin being loaded aboard the airplane for the flight home.
The hijackers were identified as Sufian Arsayev, Eriskhan Arsayev and Deni Magomerzayev. Russian officials were seeking to have the two surviving hijackers extradited to Russia to face trial. There were conflicting reports on which one of the three had been killed.
Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef said in remarks published Saturday in the newspaper Okaz that Saudi and Russian officials were discussing the hijacking but insisted that ``the fate of the hijackers will of course be decided by the concerned Saudi authorities.''