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Saudis storm hijacked airliner

3 die during fight with Chechens over Russian plane

MEDINA, Saudi Arabia — Climbing on ladders, Saudi commandos in full battle gear broke through the windows and doors of a Russian plane today, freeing more than 100 hostages and ending a hijacking by armed Chechens. Three people — a flight attendant, a hijacker and a passenger — were killed.

Several others were injured in the swift rescue operation, which came after the hijackers threatened to blow up the plane, the Saudi Interior Ministry said. The Chechens had seized the aircraft after takeoff from Istanbul, Turkey, on Thursday.

Paramedics at the scene said a woman — the flight attendant — was knifed to death and two men were killed by gunfire.

The Interior Ministry said the flight attendant was killed by the hijackers during the rescue operation. In Turkey, the Anatolia news agency identified the dead passenger as a 27-year-old Turkish construction worker whose wife is five months pregnant.

The other hijackers were arrested, the Saudi Interior Ministry said, without indicating how many there were. Earlier reports put the number between two and four men.

A Chechen representative in Jordan told the Associated Press that two brothers hijacked the plane, one of whom was a former Chechen security minister. She said their demands included a halt to the Russian "genocide" in the breakaway republic in the Caucasus.

In the first footage of the rescue operation at Medina airport, Saudi state television showed more than a dozen commandos surrounding the plane as others ran up ladders, kicking in the cockpit and breaking through the windows and doors of the airliner.

The television then cut to scenes showing frantic passengers running down the staircase as gun-wielding commandos in bulletproof vests shouted for them to hurry. Paramedics were seen rushing down the stairs with an injured person on a stretcher.

Saudi television showed commandos restraining two young men on the tarmac, one wearing black jeans and a T-shirt and another with dark jeans and white T-shirt. They were pushed to the ground and handcuffed.

The Saudis said they decided to storm the plane, in consultation with the Russian government, after reaching "a dead end" in on-again, off-again negotiations during the 18 hours the jetliner was parked on the tarmac at Medina International Airport in western Saudi Arabia.

"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," the Saudi Interior Ministry statement said.

Topa Bilgetin Toker, general director of Turkish Civilian Aviation, said the Saudi forces stormed the plane after the pilots managed to escape from the aircraft. He said the decision came after the hijackers failed to establish further contact with the Saudis.

Saudi officials said the hijackers had earlier asked to fly to Afghanistan.

The hijackers, armed with knives and claiming to have a bomb, commandeered the Vnukova Airlines plane Thursday afternoon shortly after taking off from Istanbul on a flight to Moscow with 174 persons aboard, and diverted it south to Medina.

As many as 46 of the hostages — mostly women, children and elderly people — were freed or escaped from the Tupolev 154 jet Thursday night in Medina.

The hijackers were trying to call attention to what they considered 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.

"It is a humanitarian issue. Their demands include halting the genocide in Chechnya and sitting at the negotiating table with (Chechen) President (Aslan) Maskhadov to find a peaceful solution to the conflict," said Aftayeva Fariza, the Chechen representative in Jordan.

Aftayeva identified the hijackers as Aslambek Arsayev, the former Chechen security minister, and his brother, Sufian. She said the information came from a third brother, Adam, who was not among the hijackers.

She also said the hijacker's brother felt sorry the operation resulted in casualties, which was "not the aim of the hijackers."