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Saudi Commandos Free Passengers From Hijacked Plane

BY Admin  March 16, 2001 at 10:30 AM EST

Three people — a hijacker, a passenger and a flight attendant — were killed in the operation. The raid concluded a standoff that began yesterday when two to four Chechens, armed with knives and claiming to have a bomb, hijacked the Moscow-bound Russian plane 30 minutes after it took off from Istanbul, Turkey.

Saudi officials said today they decided to raid the plane after consulting with the Russian government and reaching “a dead end” in negotiations with the Chechen hijackers. The Saudi Interior Ministry said the operation was intended to “save the lives of the passengers and crew with the least number of casualties possible” and that it was launched after “the hijackers threatened to blow up the plane.”

The Saudi Interior Ministry also said that in addition to the deaths, several people were injured in the rescue operation. The remaining hijackers were arrested.

The plane, a TU-154 from Vnukovo Airlines, was carrying 174 people when it took off from Istanbul yesterday afternoon. But reports indicate as many as 46 people were freed or escaped from the plane during the 18 hours it sat on the Medina tarmac. At one point the hijackers released at least 14 women, children and elderly. Later, another 15 passengers escaped out a rear exit.

Saudi officials said the hijackers had asked for permission to fly to Afghanistan. A Chechen envoy in Jordan said the hijackers were trying to call attention to atrocities they alleged Russians were committing in Chechnya. She said the lead hijacker was a former general and Chechen interior minister.

Chechen rebels seeking independence from Russia are in ongoing conflict with Russian forces. The Kremlin has claimed Turkey supports Chechen rebels, but the two countries recently signed an anti-terrorism agreement after Turkey reportedly promised to stop helping the Chechens.

Chechens injured in clashes with the Russians have been treated in Turkish hospitals. The vast majority of Turks and Chechens are Muslims.

The plane took off from Istanbul’s Ataturk International airport Thursday afternoon. Turkey’s transport minister said one passenger was injured in a fight outside the cockpit with the hijackers during the flight. The plane dove 1,300 feet during the struggle before pilots stabilized it, he said.