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Monday, 29 October, 2001, 00:35 GMT
Escape from Kandahar
Kandahar
The Russians were held captive in Kandahar
With impeccable timing, a Russian air crew have published a book about their flight from Taleban capitivity called Escape from Kandahar.

The story began in August 1995 when Captain Vladimir Sharpatov and his six fellow crew members took off in their Ilyushin-76 cargo plane bound for Kabul via Tehran and the United Arab Emirates.

Burhanuddin Rabbani
The Russians were taking arms to Rabbani
They were laden with 30 tonnes of weapons for the besieged Afghan government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani.

The government was fighting to keep control of Kabul in the face of attacks from the Taleban militia, which had raised the flag of fundamentalist Islam in the southern city of Kandahar.

Despite having ousted the Soviet invaders in 1989, Mr Rabbani was now turning to Russia to help fight their common enemy, the Taleban.

A Taleban jet forced the Ilyushin to land and began a year of captivity and uncertainty for the seven Russians.

They were taken out for the occasional excursion to buy traditional Afghan clothes, but were otherwise kept constantly on the move, usually at gunpoint, to avoid any chance of rescue.

Daring escape

In the end, Captain Sharpatov and his men managed to escape using their own ingenuity.

The Taleban allowed them to carry out maintenance work on the plane every two months. They took advantage of one opportunity to trick their guards into leaving their weapons outside the plane, overpowered them, and took off.
Crew returns to Kazan, Russia, 1996
Sharpatov was relieved to make it home to Kazan

They took the Taleban completely by surprise and sped past two lorries sent to intercept them on the runway. The Taleban were not able to scramble their aircraft in time.

Captain Sharpatov flew the plane, with the three bewildered Taleban guards on board, at an altitude of 50-60 metres to the Iranian border.

"We flew really low because if we had been any higher we would have been spotted by radar and an interceptor would have caught us," the captain told Russia's TV6 channel.

No sympathy

Captain Sharpatov has no sympathy for his former captors. Asked about the bombing raids on Taleban positions, he said something should have been done about them a long time ago.
Cover of book
The book is now on sale in Moscow

He and his colleagues remember their flight to freedom as a second birthday, and cannot forget the suffering of the Afghan people they left behind.

"My heart really goes out to these people. I've seen what a poverty-stricken and miserable standard of living they have. They're still fighting because they've nothing left to lose," he said.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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