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The BBC's Chiaka Nwosu
"The Kremlin is demanding that the two remaining hijackers be extradited to Russia for trial"
 real 56k

The BBC's Caroline Hawley
"Medical teams were on standyby, and they were needed"
 real 56k

The BBC's Daniela Relph
"Saudi special forces literally smashed their way inside the plane"
 real 56k

Friday, 16 March, 2001, 14:43 GMT 15:43 UK
Bloody end to Chechen hijack
passengers flee from the aircraft
Passengers fled from the aircraft after it was stormed
Security forces in Saudi Arabia have stormed a hijacked Russian plane at Medina airport, freeing more than 100 passengers and crew.


They treated us well, but sometimes they threatened to blow up the plane

Russian passenger
Three people - believed to be one of the hijackers, a Russian air stewardess and a Turkish passenger - were killed.

The officials said the other hijackers, who had identified themselves as Chechens, were arrested.

They are reported to have been armed with knives and possibly a bomb.

Saudi television showed commandos wearing bulletproof vests climbing up ladders to the aircraft and kicking in the doors.

captured hijacker
Saudi television showed pictures of men being restrained
Soon after, two men were shown being restrained, face down on the runway.

Most of the passengers were reported to be Russians, along with between 55 and 60 Turkish nationals.

After fleeing the plane, one Russian woman passenger said: "I saw three hijackers. They treated us well, but sometimes they threatened to blow up the plane. We were frightened and worried."

An aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Russian authorities had approved the assault on the plane. Moscow is demanding the extradition of the hijackers.

At least 45 people had earlier been freed by the hijackers or had escaped from the plane, which was hijacked on Thursday during a flight from Istanbul to Moscow.

Hijack timeline (GMT)
15 March 1130: Plane takes off from Istanbul
1200: Hijackers strike
1500: Plane lands in Medina
2000: First group of passengers released
Shortly afterwards 15 people escape from rear exit
2200: More hostages released bringing total free to 45
16th March 0600: Hijackers demand fuel for long flight
1000: Saudi security forces storm plane, free hostages and arrest hijackers
During the hijack, the plane plunged 400 metres (1,300 feet) as a fight broke out at the door of the cockpit involving the hijackers. The aircraft was eventually stabilised, but one man, a steward, was seriously injured in the struggle.

A representative of the Chechen separatist movement identified two of the hijackers as Aslambek Arsayev, the former Chechen Interior Minister and a veteran of the war with Russia, and his brother, Sufian.

The Saudis said they decided to storm the plane after reaching "a dead end" in negotiations during the 18 hours the Vnukova Airlines Tupolev 154 jet was parked on the tarmac at Medina.

The hijackers had demanded that the plane be given enough fuel for a flight of up to 5,000 kilometres (3,000 miles). They apparently wanted to fly to the Afghan city of Kandahar.

A Saudi Interior Ministry statement said: "The goal of the storming operation was to save the lives of the passengers and the crew with the least number of casualties possible, and it concluded in record time after the hijackers threatened to blow up the plane."

map
The hijackers are said to have been trying to call attention to what they consider atrocities committed by Russia in their native Chechnya, according to a Chechen representative in Jordan.

At one point during the hijacking, a Chechen flag was seen taped to the side of the plane as it sat on the Medina tarmac.

Russia has long accused Saudi Arabia of lending support to Chechen rebels.

In July, a Riyadh official denounced Russia's crackdown on predominantly Muslim Chechnya as "inhumane" and called for Chechens' right to self-determination.

Medina is Islam's second holiest city after Mecca.

Moscow has also accused Turkey of being a refuge for rebels. Ankara has denied the accusations and, in February, agreed to boost security co-operation with Moscow.

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See also:

16 Mar 01 | Middle East
In pictures: Hijack drama
15 Mar 01 | Europe
Turkey and the Chechens
15 Mar 01 | Middle East
Hijacks mar Turkey security claims
16 Jan 01 | Europe
Chechnya's cycle of devastation
16 Mar 00 | Europe
The Caucasus: Troubled borderland
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