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Monday, 23 April, 2001, 08:41 GMT 09:41 UK
Profile: Istanbul gang's leader
Rebel leader Tokcan
Tokcan: Amnestied last year
Muhammed Tokcan, the reported leader of the Istanbul hostage-takers, was born in Turkey, but has roots across the border in the Russian republic of Chechnya.

It is his Chechen "brothers" he says he is fighting for.

This is not the first time he has taken up arms to support their struggle for independence from Russia.

Five years ago he led an armed gang which seized a Turkish ferry, the Avrasya, on the Black Sea.

Warning

More than 200 hostages were seized, and flags in Chechen colours were run up the ship's mast.

Tokcan issued a dramatic warning to then-president Boris Yeltsin.

"This is my message to Yeltsin. We are not terrorists, we are freedom fighters," he said.

"If our Chechen brothers are not freed, Russia will be the murderer of these passengers - no one else."

Student

Reports at the time described Tokcan as a student originally from Duzce, in northern Turkey. He was then in his early twenties, and apparently studying at a Turkish university.

His fellow hijackers were to be of Abkhazian descent.

The gang had previously crossed the border into Chechnya to fight the Russians, but decided to bring the struggle back to Turkey.

Turkish television showed dramatic pictures of the gunmen brandishing their weapons and shouting "God is great".

Escaped

The hostage drama ended peacefully after four days, but not before Tokcan had made a national name for himself.

His own drama did not end there.

He was jailed for eight years, but only a year into the sentence, he escaped from prison.

He was recaptured, but events took another twist. Late last year he was released from prison under a general amnesty.

As the Istanbul hotel drama unfolded, Tokcan again surrendered without harming any of his hostages.

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See also:

20 Apr 01 | Europe
UN condemns Russia over Chechnya
01 Oct 00 | Europe
Analysis: Chechnya one year on
29 Nov 00 | Europe
Eyewitness: Chechnya's bitter war
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