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Armed Men Hijack Russian Airliner Chechen Hijackers Demand End To Russian War

By Molly Moore
THE WASHINGTON POST -- ISTANBUL

Two men armed with knives and claiming to have a bomb hijacked a Moscow-bound Russian passenger jet Thursday after takeoff from Istanbul, sending 174 passengers and crew on a harrowing flight to Saudi Arabia, according to Turkish authorities.

The hijackers, who reportedly identified themselves as Chechens and said they were demanding an end to Russia’s war against rebels in the breakaway region of Chechnya, forced the plane’s pilots to fly to the Muslim holy city of Medina. After several hours of negotiation via walkie-talkies with Saudi intermediaries at the airport there, they allowed more than 20 passengers -- mostly women and small children -- to leave the Tu-154 jet.

Three other passengers escaped out a rear door of the aircraft as it sat on the tarmac surrounded by Saudi security forces, according to a Saudi airport official.

Saudi authorities said three of the passengers were being treated for shock at a local hospital.

A steward who allegedly was knifed by one of the hijackers as they attempted to enter the cockpit in the opening moments of the hijacking also was released and taken from the aircraft by ambulance, airport officials said.

It was unclear how seriously the steward was injured, but as he and the hijackers scuffled, the plane plunged 1,300 feet before pilots locked the cockpit door and stabilized the craft, according to accounts by airline and Turkish officials.

Negotiations, which were continuing Friday morning, were hampered because the hijackers spoke neither Arabic nor English, Saudi airport officials said in interviews broadcast on Turkish television. Although Turkish aviation authorities said two men conducted the hijacking, Saudi negotiators said they believe as many as four people may have been involved.

The aircraft, a charter flight catering primarily to Russians visiting Istanbul on shopping expeditions to buy cheap clothing and other wares for resale, took off from Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport at 1:30 p.m. local time (6:30 a.m. EST) Thursday. Approximately two-thirds of the 162 passengers had Russian names and one-third Turkish names, according to Russian and Turkish aviation authorities. Twelve crew members were aboard.

About 30 minutes after takeoff, two men wielding knives and saying they had a bomb seized control of the airplane, according to Turkish Transport Minister Enis Oksuz.

“We still have no information about the nationality of the hijackers, whether they were Chechens or of some other nationality,” said Alexander Klimov, head of Vnukovo Airlines, which was operating the flight from Istanbul to Moscow. “But we are guiding ourselves by the fact that one of the demands of the hijackers was an end to the war in Chechnya.”