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Saudis overpower hijackers

A hijacker, crew member and passenger are killed. More than 100 passengers are safely rescued.

Necati Ates and more than 100 other people had been in captivity aboard the hijacked Russian plane for nearly a day, most of it spent in sweltering conditions on the ground in the Saudi Arabian holy city of Medina.

Then, early Friday, the Turkish passenger saw Saudi commandos putting ladders against the aircraft. "I saw them through the window," he said, "and they signaled to me to keep quiet."

Moments later the soldiers rushed up the ladders and broke through the windows and doors of the Russian plane, freeing more than 100 hostages and ending a hijacking by Chechen rebels. Three people _ a flight attendant, a hijacker and a passenger _ were killed.

Security forces "came in through the cockpit, in the midsection of the plane and from the back," Ates said. "The leader of the hijackers tried to get into the cockpit, and when he did, he came face-to-face with the police (soldiers).

"Suddenly everything turned into chaos," Ates said. "The police told all the passengers to get on the floor. But there was panic. One of the hijackers slashed the stewardess' throat. When her throat was cut, the security forces shot the hijackers and the Turkish passenger was shot. I saw it all.

"There was chaos and people panicked," Ates said.

The commandos pushed two other hijackers face down onto the tarmac and handcuffed them as the hostages streamed past them to safety after 22 hours in captivity. Witnesses said that there were three hijackers in all and that they brandished knives and claimed to have a bomb.

Several people were injured in the rescue, which came after the hijackers threatened to blow up the plane, the Saudi Interior Ministry said. "The goal of the storming operation was to save the lives of the passengers and the crew with the least number of casualties possible," the ministry said.

The Chechens seized the Moscow-bound aircraft on Thursday after it took off from Istanbul, Turkey. At first, they asked to land in Egypt, then settled on Saudi Arabia _ an apparent miscalculation given the Saudis' strict adherence to Islamic law and demonstrated willingness to respond aggressively to crime.

Paramedics said that the hijackers stabbed and shot to death the female flight attendant during the commando raid and that the hijacker and passenger _ both men _ were killed by gunfire. The Russian Interfax news agency identified the flight attendant as Yulia Fomina, 27. Turkey's Anatolia news agency said the dead passenger was a Turk, Gursel Kambal, 27.

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 Russian republic.

Chechen separatists' violent campaign often has spilled over the republic's borders in hijackings and raids, with Turkey a frequent site. In November, a Chechen gunman seized a Russian airliner with 58 people aboard and diverted it to Israel, where he surrendered.

Footage of Friday's rescue operation showed more than a dozen commandos surrounding the plane as others ran up the ladders, breaking through the windows and doors. Passengers ran down the staircase as gun-wielding commandos in bulletproof vests shouted for them to hurry.

The former hostages were taken to a hotel. Saudi intelligence agents prevented journalists from approaching them but some were contacted by telephone.

Hours before the raid, as many as 46 people were freed or escaped from the Vnukova Airlines plane. When it left Turkey, the flight carried 162 passengers and 12 crew members.

"They said they had a bomb, but no one saw it. No one knew what they wanted," hostage Monika Turkan told Russia's ORT government television.

Other freed hostages recalled suffocation, thirst and fear as conditions on the plane grew increasingly oppressive.

"There wasn't enough oxygen, there wasn't enough water, women and children were crying," co-pilot Sergei Vorobyov said by phone in an interview with Russia's ORT government television.

The Saudis said they decided to storm the plane, in consultation with the Russian government, after reaching "a dead end" in negotiations.

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef said the hijackers were given a deadline to surrender but they insisted on refueling and taking off. Saudi officials said the hijackers had asked to fly to Afghanistan.

The hijackers were trying to call attention to what they considered atrocities committed by Russia in Chechnya, according to Aftayeva Fariza, the Chechen representative in Jordan.

"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," Fariza said.

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

Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed condolences to the families of the dead passenger and flight attendant. He said the tragedy "reminded all of us, both Russian and foreign public opinion, with whom the Russian army is dealing in its counter-terrorist operation" in Chechnya.

Vladimir Pronichev of Russia's Federal Security Service, said negotiations to extradite the hijackers were under way.

_ Information from the Associated Press, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

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