Russian Plane Hijacked in Turkey

Thursday, March 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) — Two men wielding knives and identifying themselves as Chechens hijacked a Russian plane carrying 174 people from Istanbul's airport on Thursday, sending the aircraft on a terrifying plunge before pilots stabilized it.

The plane landed hours later at an airport in Medina, in western Saudi Arabia, according to Saudi and Turkish authorities.

In Medina, the plane was surrounded by security forces and was parked away from the main traffic at the airport, which was packed with Muslim pilgrims returning home after the annual hajj pilgrimage, said Abdul Fatah Mohammad Atta, the airport manager, who spoke by telephone with The Associated Press in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The plane, a TU-154 from Vnukovo Airlines, took off at 1:30 p.m. (6:30 a.m. EST) from Istanbul's Ataturk International airport. The two hijackers took over 30 minutes later, Turkey's Anatolia news agency reported.

Turkish Transport Minister Enis Oksuz said the hijackers were armed with knives and claimed to have a bomb. He said the plane plunged 1,300 feet during a fight between the hijackers and a passenger at the entrance to the cockpit and that the passenger was injured.

There were 162 passengers and 12 crew on board the plane, which had been on a scheduled flight to Moscow.

The hijackers identified themselves as Chechen rebels.

Moscow has long accused Turkey of supporting the rebels in the breakaway Russian republic in the Caucasus region. The overwhelming majority of Turks and Chechens are Muslims and millions of Turks trace their origin to the Caucasus. Chechens injured in fighting against Russian forces have been treated in Turkish hospitals.

But Turkey and Russia recently signed an agreement to cooperate in the battle against terrorism after Turkey reportedly promised to stop all support of the Chechens.

In 1996, pro-Chechen gunmen hijacked a passenger ferry off Turkey's northern Black Sea coast.

The ferry hijackers, two Chechens, six Turks and a Georgian, held more than 200 passengers hostage for four days to protest Moscow's military campaign in Chechnya, a breakaway Russian republic. A Turkish court later sentenced them to eight years in prison; all the hijackers later escaped amid suspicion of collusion by authorities.

Russian troops entered Chechnya again in 1999 after independence fighters based there invaded a neighboring region, and after four apartment bombings in Moscow and two other Russian cities killed about 300 people. The bombings were blamed on rebels, who deny involvement.

The hijacking on Thursday is the fifth from a Turkish airport since 1998. The last was in 1999, when a hijacker armed with a knife commandeered a Cairo-bound flight shortly after takeoff from Istanbul. He surrendered to German police after the plane landed in Hamburg, Germany. None of the 46 passengers on board was harmed.

In October 1998, soldiers stormed a commandeered plane in the capital Ankara and shot a hijacker dead.

The hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, ended last week in Saudi Arabia. More than 2 million pilgrims from all over the world had performed the hajj, and many were still in the kingdom. The airport at the holy city of Medina, 440 miles west of Riyadh, on Thursday was full of pilgrims returning to their countries and will remain crowded for about another 10 days.