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Russia: Special Forces Free Hijacked Passengers

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; 16 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- AFP quotes a Russian diplomat at Medina airport and Reuters quotes witnesses on the ground who say Saudi special forces have successfully ended the hijacking of a Russian plane after storming the aircraft. The passengers were freed and the hijackers were captured. Earlier negotiators tried to secure the release of the passengers on the Vnukovo Airlines plane. The aircraft was seized yesterday afternoon shortly after taking off from Istanbul, en route to Moscow, and forced to land in Saudi Arabia.

There has been no official confirmation on who the hijackers were and what they were demanding. Saudi officials said the hijackers had earlier asked to fly to Afghanistan. An airport official said they wanted the plane refueled for a long flight.

The hijackers, who were armed with knives, released at least 42 hostages. One of the passengers released was a male flight attendant who was stabbed after the plane was hijacked.

In Amman, Jordan, Chechen representative Atfayva Fariza said the leader of the hijackers is an ex-Chechen interior minister.

But the office of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has denied any link to the hijackers.