Freed Hijack Hostages Fly Home to Moscow

Published March 17th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

Around 120 hostages freed from a Russian plane hijacked to Saudi Arabia left for Moscow on an another aircraft Saturday after a bloody rescue operation by Saudi commandos, a Russian diplomat told AFP. 

He said the ex-hostages, most of them Russians, left Medina in western Saudi Arabia aboard an Ilyushin-62 sent from Moscow. 

Around 50 Turkish passengers on the Istanbul-Moscow flight that was hijacked by suspected Chechen rebels on Thursday opted to stay behind and await a return flight to Turkey, the diplomat said. 

The former hostages spent the night in a Medina hotel after their two-day ordeal, which ended in bloodshed on Friday. 

One hijacker, a Russian flight attendant and a Turkish passenger were killed as Saudi special forces stormed the Vnukovo Airline jet that had been hijacked to Medina, home of the second holiest sites in Islam after Mecca. 

Saudi and Russian officials said the hijackers had freed or allowed to escape about 50 hostages out of the more than 170 passengers and crew aboard the chartered Tupolev-156 from Istanbul, according to the agency. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Chechen rebels for the hijacking of a Russian plane which ended in a dramatic rescue by Saudi special forces, and warned of new moves to fight international terrorism. 

Putin said the hostage drama highlighted the danger posed by Chechen separatism. 

"This tragedy reminds all of us, in Russia as well as the international community, of what the Russian army has to deal with in its antiterrorist operation in the north Caucasus," the Kremlin chief said in remarks broadcast on state-run television. 

Earlier, Russia had called on Riyadh to hand over the two surviving hijackers after directly linking the hijack to the nearly 18-month conflict in the north Caucasus republic. 

"Today it is already clear that this terrorist act in Turkey and Saudi Arabia was not the work of individuals but of Chechen terrorism," Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Avdeyev was quoted as saying by ITAR-TASS. 

Putin suggested that the Chechen rebels had turned to hijacking because they had been defeated comprehensively by the Russian army which launched its intervention in the southern republic on October 1, 1999, said AFP. 

Chechen warlords had "perfectly understood that they cannot resist Russia's armed forces out in the open," Putin said, adding that the "clever ones remain abroad, from where they organize hostile actions against Russia." 

The Russian leader said he had instructed top officials to develop "an effective strategy" to prevent future hijacks by "obtaining information in advance about the actions and plans of the bandit leaders, wherever they are, in Russia or beyond its frontiers." 

But a spokesman for breakaway Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov denied that the rebels were behind the hijacking, saying they would never target innocent civilians, the agency reported – 




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