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Saudi Arabian Police Raid Hijacked Russian Jetliner

16th March 2001

Saudi Arabian police officers forced their way into a hijacked Russian jetliner
freeing more than 100 passengers

Saudi Arabian police officers forced their way into a hijacked Russian jetliner today, freeing more than 100 passengers and shooting dead one hijacker after he fatally knifed a flight attendant, Saudi and Russian officials said.

An unidentified Turkish passenger was also reported killed in the morning raid after a night of fruitless negotiations between Saudi officials and the hijackers. A Russian plane left Moscow tonight to pick up the Russians freed by Saudi security forces.

The Tu-154 passenger plane was seized by three or four armed men on Thursday as it took off from Istanbul bound for the Russian capital with 162 passengers and 12 crew members. 

It flew over Cyprus and Egypt before landing at Medina, the western Saudi city where millions of Muslim pilgrims each year visit the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad.

Saudi and Russian officials said that the hijackers were from Russia's rebellious republic of Chechnya and that they threatened to blow up the passenger jet when their demands to refuel the aircraft for a flight to an undisclosed destination were not met.

Russia's president, Vladimir V. Putin, who monitored first reports of the hijacking while on vacation in Siberia, rushed back to Moscow today after giving his consent to Saudi authorities to storm the plane.

Passengers streamed out onto the aircraft's wing, some with their hands in the air. Initial reports said that as the Saudi police entered the cabin, the youngest of the hijackers holding a flight attendant, Yulia Fomina, 27, of Moscow, at knifepoint cut her throat and was then shot. The Turkish passenger was reported to have died from a fatal knife wound to the stomach.

Two of the hijackers were shown in television reports face down on the tarmac outside the plane with their hands bound behind their backs. During the negotiations they had hung a red, green and white Chechen flag in the plane's doorway.

Russia's Foreign Ministry asked Saudi authorities to return the hijackers to Russia under the terms of international conventions signed by both countries to combat air piracy. Russia and Saudi Arabia have no extradition treaty.

More than 40 passengers had either been released or had escaped down rear exit stairs of the aircraft before the raid started. This group included a flight attendant who had been stabbed during the first hours of the hijacking, the authorities said.

The Vnukovo Airlines charter flight was one of many that ferry Russians and foreign expatriates to Turkey and other Mediterranean destinations during the long Russian winter.

Some Russian officials today expressed irritation with Turkish authorities, whose airport security measures failed to prevent the hijackers from carrying weapons on board. Russia's interior minister, Vladimir B. Rushailo, was said to have complained to Turkish officials recently that "Chechen rebels" who are on Russia's "wanted list" were living legally "on Turkish territory."

Tonight, Russia's domestic intelligence service said it had evidence that a top Chechen rebel commander, known only as Khattab, had ordered the hijacking.

Russia has waged a 17-month "antiterrorist" campaign in Chechnya that continues to simmer as a partisan guerrilla war. Several thousand Chechen rebels continue to inflict casualties on Russian security forces, who have reduced the republic's capital, Grozny, to rubble, forcing about 300,000 civilian refugees to spend a second winter in camps and makeshift shelters as firefights, sniping and mine warfare continue.

On Russian television tonight, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, an aide to Mr. Putin, said the hijackers had been tentatively identified as Supian Arsayev, 42, and Eriskhan Arsayev, 15, and the name of a third was rendered as either Magomed Rezayev or Megomerzayev, 19.

A Chechen spokeswoman in Jordan told the Itar-Tass news agency today that the Arsayev brothers were relatives of a former Chechen interior minister, Aslambek Arsayev, who carried out an unsuccessful campaign in 1998 to arrest Chechen warlords believed responsible for the kidnapping industry that has plagued the Russian republic for most of the last decade. It was not clear whether Mr. Arsayev had joined the rebels in the conflict that erupted in 1999, but he served in the government of President Aslan Maskhadov, who now leads the rebellion, along with the rebel commanders Shamil Basayev and Khattab.


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18 March 2001 04:11:41 PM

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