Saudis storm hijacked Russian aircraft, at least three killed

Friday, March 16th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MEDINA, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ Saudi security forces stormed a hijacked Russian plane Friday, freeing more than 100 hostages and ending a crisis that began when armed Chechen men commandeered the plane after takeoff from Istanbul. Three people were killed and several others injured, paramedics said, while three suspects were reportedly in custody.

A representative of the breakaway Chechen Republic identified one of the hijackers as a former Chechen interior minister. The report could not immediately be confirmed.

Those killed were one Turkish passenger, one hijacker _ ``apparently the younger one'' _ and one stewardess, aides to Kremlin envoy Sergei Yastrzhembsky said. The paramedics said the woman was stabbed to death while the two men were shot.

A passenger with bloodied trousers was seen being carried away from the plane. One man was handcuffed and led away by Saudi security forces, the paramedics said.

The operation by Saudi forces took only minutes, after an hours-long standoff between Saudi authorities and the hijackers, who reportedly numbered between two and four.

Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Yastrzhembsky as saying three hijackers were in custody and the rest of the passengers were being searched. He said the storming was approved by Russian authorities.

The hijacking began when Chechen men wielding knives and claiming to have a bomb hijacked the plane carrying 174 people after it left Turkey on Thursday, bound for Moscow. They forced it to land in the holy Saudi city of Medina.

Topa Bilgetin Toker, General Director of Turkish Civilian Aviation, said the Saudi forces stormed the plane after the pilots escaped the aircraft. Up to 112 people were still aboard the plane at the time Saudi forces moved in. Earlier, as many as 46 people had been freed or escaped.

Minutes before the raid, more than 30 members of the Saudi army's special forces unit in full battle gear, armed with semi-automatic rifles and wearing helmets and bullet proof vests, were loaded into an army bus. About six ambulances and fire engines surrounded the plane, which was parked in an isolated area on the tarmac while Medina airport remained open to commercial flights. Two Saudi air force cargo planes were parked a few hundred yards away.

Other members of the special forces unit huddled in tents in the service area of the airport, out of sight of the plane. Four army vehicles and four armored personnel carriers were parked behind the tents. Paramedics were on hand to offer first aid and medical assistance to other passengers.

Toker said the decision to move in came after the hijackers failed to establish further contact with the Saudis. Four to five people may have been injured, Toker said.

A surgeon who boarded the plane after the rescue operation said seven people were injured, and most of them were being treated for minor cuts and bruises.

Aftayeva Fariza, a representative of the breakaway Chechen Republic in Amman, Jordan, identified the hijackers as Aslambek Artsayev, the former Chechen interior minister, and his brother, Sufian. She said the information comes from a third brother, Adam, who was not among the hijackers.

She said the reason for the hijacking was not terrorism or money, but to attract world attention to the situation in Chechnya.

She also said the hijacker's brother felt sorry the operation resulted in casualties, which was ``not the aim of the hijackers.''

It wasn't clear what the hijackers' demands were. Saudi officials said they had earlier asked to fly to Afghanistan. Russian Embassy official Igor Kremnev told Russia's NTV television that the hijackers' demands were unclear.

An official at Medina airport, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the hijackers had earlier asked authorities to refuel the plane and prepare it for a long flight but later changed their minds. He did not say where the hijackers planned to go.

Chechen separatists' violent campaign to break free of Russia often has spilled over the republic's borders in hijackings and raids, with Turkey a frequent site for audacious actions. At least 25,000 Chechens live in Turkey, and the separatists have many Turkish supporters.