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170 freed hostages back home after hijacking

Hijackers may have been a father and his 2 teen sons

MOSCOW — Some 170 freed hostages returned home to tearful welcomes in Moscow and Istanbul on Saturday, a day after commandos stormed their hijacked Russian airliner in Saudi Arabia.

Looking pale and tired, 121 passengers and crew who were aboard the hijacked plane were greeted at Moscow's Vnukovo airport by groups of anxious relatives, who hugged and kissed them and gave them flowers.

"It was very scary. When (the hijackers) were trying to hack down the cockpit door, we were saying goodbye to our lives," one woman passenger tearfully told Russia's NTV television.

"I can only say thank God we're here and the worst is behind us . . . we've all been through too much," another woman said.

A Russian aviation official said the body of 27-year-old flight attendant Yulia Fomina, whose throat was slit by a hijacker as Saudi commandos raided the plane, was also aboard the Russian jet which was dispatched to pick up the hostages.

RTR state television reported fellow flight attendant, Svetlana Ivaniv, as saying Fomina had also been shot when Saudi commandos stormed the plane and opened fire.

Saudi officials said commandos shot dead Fomina's killer. A Turkish passenger also died during the raid, which took place in broad daylight on the tarmac in the Muslim holy city of Medina.

About 50 passengers were also flown home to Istanbul, along with the body of Gursel Kambal, 27, who fellow travellers said was shot.

Some of the Turkish passengers criticized the operation to free them after the 21-hour ordeal.

"Our friend died because of their unsuccessful operation," a passenger told Turkey's NTV television before leaving Medina airport. "They began firing guns at random as soon as they opened the rear door," passenger Ali Copoglu said.

Exhausted hostages had spent a night in a hotel in Medina after the drama that began on Thursday, when hijackers demanding an end to war in rebel Chechnya seized the Tupolev 154 en route from Istanbul to Moscow and forced it to fly to Saudi Arabia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a telegram to Saudi King Fahd, praising him for his handling of the crisis and asking him to turn the hijackers over to "Russian justice."

"Handing over the hijackers is up to contacts between the two countries. The fate of the hijackers will be decided by the Saudi authorities," Prince Nayef, the Saudi interior minister, told the Saudi Okaz newspaper.

A Russian diplomat in Riyadh said talks over extradition were under way but added he did not expect results soon.

The hijacking appeared to be a family operation by one Chechen and his two teenaged sons.

Russian officials identified the hijackers as Supyan Arsayev and two teenagers, Iriskhan Arsayev and Denis Magomerdzayev, who family members said were Supyan's sons. Supyan Arsayev was identified as the hijacker who was killed.

Supyan's sister, Alla Ibragimova, told NTV by telephone that he had been on his way to Moscow for medical treatment.

"He could not get treatment there (Turkey) . . . I told him we had good doctors here and asked him to come," Ibragimova said.

"He evidently decided to come with his sons as he could not walk very well by himself," she added.

Brother-in-law, Lom-Alil Ibragimov, was quoted by Kommersant newspaper as saying Supyan was a brother of Aslambek Arsayev, former security minister in the separatist administration of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov.

Maskhadov's Web site denied any links to the hijacking.

Saudi state television showed the dramatic three-minute raid that ended the stand-off in Medina. Pistol-wielding commandos, in flak jackets and helmets, scaled ladders and battered their way through the plane's doors and windows.

"We were ordered to storm the plane after the pilot screamed for help when the hijackers started to stab some passengers," it quoted rescue squad leader Colonel Ali al-Rikhaili, as saying.

"We shot dead one hijacker after we saw him stabbing to death a stewardess. Some passengers suffered from stab wounds."

The Vnukovo Airlines plane had 162 passengers and 12 crew on board when it was seized. More than 40 hostages were released or escaped in Medina before the plane was stormed. A flight attendant stabbed by the hijackers was among those freed.