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Chechens seize jet, hold 129 hostages

The hijackers reportedly say they want to fly to Afghanistan.

Chechen men wielding knives and claiming to have a bomb hijacked a Russian plane carrying 174 people after it left Turkey on Thursday. They forced it to land in the holy Saudi Arabian city of Medina, where 45 hostages were reportedly freed or escaped.

The plane, a Tu-154 from Vnukovo Airlines, took off at 1:30 p.m. local time (6:30 a.m. EST) from Istanbul's Ataturk International Airport, bound for Moscow with 162 passengers and 12 crew members aboard.

The hijackers took over 30 minutes later. The pilots immediately locked themselves inside the cockpit.

At one point, a fight between the hijackers and a passenger at the entrance to the cockpit sent the plane on a terrifying plunge of 1,300 feet, Turkish Transport Minister Enis Oksuz said. The pilot managed to stabilize the plane.

The hijackers identified themselves as rebels from the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya. They said they wanted to fly to Afghanistan, the AP reported, citing Saudi officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Chechen separatists' violent campaign to break free of Russia _ including hijackings and raids _ often has spilled over the republic's borders. At least 25,000 Chechens live in Turkey, and the separatists have many Turkish supporters.

In Medina, security forces surrounded the aircraft and a Saudi team was negotiating with the hijackers, said Abdul Fatah Mohammad Atta, the airport manager. The standoff continued into the early hours today, nearly 14 hours after the hijacking began.

After arriving in Saudi Arabia, the hijackers freed all the women and children, airport officials said. They didn't give a number, but the official Saudi Press Agency reported 17 were freed. The agency said 15 others passengers escaped from the airplane's rear exit.

By early today, state Saudi television reported that a total of 45 hostages had left the plane, but it did not give a breakdown on how many had escaped or had been freed.

Television footage showed women and children boarding a bus near the aircraft and arriving at an airport building, where they were given food. Most looked healthy; some were smiling.

Abdul-Hamid Mishrif, operations manager at Medina airport, said "a young man who was hurt by the hijackers" was among those freed.

Russian state RTR television in Moscow quoted Vladimir Ponichev, deputy director of the Federal Security Service, as saying the man was a steward who suffered serious wounds.

There were conflicting reports over the number of hijackers. Turkish officials said there were two. But according to RTR, Ponichev said radio contact between Saudi authorities and the hijackers showed there were four.

Airport officials said the hijackers allowed food and drinks to be taken aboard the plane. The passengers were tired and uncomfortable, but appeared to be otherwise well, the officials said.

A Saudi team of negotiators was having difficulty communicating with the hijackers, who spoke neither English or Arabic, said Atta, the airport manager. Later, a Chechen pilgrim was taken to the control tower to translate. The two sides were communicating with walkie-talkies.

A Saudi security official said there was no intention of raiding the plane.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, according to a Russian report, spoke to his Saudi counterpart Saud al-Faisal by telephone and asked for the plane and hijackers to be returned to Russia.

Hijackings by Chechens began in 1990, when separatists' hopes and boldness were rising as the Soviet Union began showing signs of collapse. One of those hijackings marked the beginning of the notoriety of Shamil Basayev, who claimed to have masterminded it. He later became one of Chechnya's major warlords, lauded by his supporters and despised by the Kremlin.

At Moscow's Vnukovo Airport, anxiety gripped relatives waiting for loved ones as confusing information about the hijacking blared from TV sets and loudspeakers.

Alexander, a 26-year-old man holding a red rose for his wife who did not give his surname, said: "I'm shaking all over."

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