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Hijacked Passengers Recall Fear
MOSCOW,17th March 2001
In the sweltering, suffocating heat of the Russian airliner hijacked to Saudi Arabia, passengers fainted and children cried.

An occasional mouthful of water helped ease the suffering in the first hours of the ordeal. Then, the water ran out.

``It was very stuffy inside the plane, there wasn't enough oxygen,'' said one of the freed hostages, Vera, who refused to give her last name.

``It was terrible. People fainted,'' she said in a telephone interview from a hotel in the Saudi Arabian city of Medina, where passengers were taken after commandos rushed up ladders and broke through the windows and doors of the Russian plane.

More than 100 hostages were freed Friday in the rescue that ended a hijacking by Chechen rebels. Three people -- a flight attendant, a hijacker and a passenger -- were killed.

The Saudi Interior Ministry said the rescue came after the hijackers threatened to blow up the plane, which sat on the tarmac for 18 hours while Saudi authorities tried to negotiate the hostages' release.

As talks dragged on, conditions on board grew increasingly worse.

Hostage Monika Turkan told Russia's ORT television that the hijackers allowed passengers to drink water -- until there was no water left.

``Nobody knew what they wanted,'' Turkan said. ``Then, we were told they wanted Russian troops to pull out of Chechnya.''

The crew tried to comfort the passengers, many of whom were crying.

``They supported us psychologically, they managed to feed us,'' said another freed passenger, Liliya Shevchenko.

One of the hijackers was armed with a knife, another had an ax he picked up from the airplane's emergency equipment kit, witnesses said. The hijackers said they also had a bomb, but none of the passengers recalled seeing one.

The pilots locked the cockpit door on the flight to Medina, the crew said. The hijackers tried to chop through the door with the ax -- then gave up and started to issue instructions through the aircraft's intercom system, pilots said.

``The door was armored. But it's an old airplane and the door was loose,'' flight engineer Andrei Guselnikov told Russia's RTR television in a telephone interview from Medina. ``The handle wouldn't close, and during the whole flight from Istanbul to Saudi Arabia we held the handle up.''

The plane had 174 people on board when it was hijacked Thursday afternoon shortly after taking off from Istanbul for Moscow. As many as 46 of the passengers were freed or escaped from the Vnukova Airlines plane after it landed in Medina.

The crisis ended when Saudi commandos stormed the plane, breaking in through the windows, emergency exits and main doors. Russian flight attendant Yulia Fomina, 27, swung one of the doors open. It apparently cost her her life.

``When the stewardess bravely went to the door and opened it from this side, (the hijackers) understood that the crew had left the airplane and soldiers were already aboard,'' said passenger Svetlana Yarosh. ``Immediately shooting started.''

Paramedics said one of the hijackers and a passenger were killed by gunfire. Turkey's Anatolia news agency said the dead passenger was a 27-year-old Turk, Gursel Kambal.

Commandos pushed two other hijackers face down onto the tarmac and handcuffed them as the hostages streamed past them to safety.

Vladimir Pronichev, first deputy director of Russia's Federal Security Service, told Russian television that negotiations to extradite the hijackers were under way.

Aftayeva Fariza, a Chechen representative in Jordan, told The Associated Press that two brothers hijacked the plane, one of whom was a former Chechen security minister.

Chechen separatists' violent campaign often has spilled over the republic's borders in hijackings and raids, with Turkey a frequent site. In November, a Chechen gunman seized a Russian airliner with 58 people aboard and diverted it to Israel, where he surrendered.


Source:  (AP) The New York Times

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17 March 2001 03:32:19 PM

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