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Gunmen storm Turkish hotel

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In this highlighted image the silhouette of a person with their arms in the air is visible inside the hotel  

ISTANBUL, Turkey (CNN) -- As many as 20 armed men, identifying themselves as Chechen rebels, stormed a luxury hotel in central Istanbul Sunday night, taking scores of people hostage.

The gunmen, firing their shotguns and machine guns, took at least 100 people hostage in the Swissotel Bosphorus at around 11:30 p.m. (4:30 p.m. ET).

They were described as "rational," allowing women and children to leave and permitting other guests to use the bathrooms.

Hundreds of police, including snipers, swarmed the hotel and began negotiations with the men, which continued into the night.

Half a dozen ambulances were also waiting outside the hotel, but it was not known whether anyone had been wounded.

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The hostages were identified as mostly Western, including many Europeans and some Americans. Britain's foreign office confirmed Monday that some Britons were being held hostage.

The gunmen used hotel staff to take guests from their rooms and bring them down to the lobby. Others were able to escape the building and were taken to the Istanbul Hilton.

Turkish police said the men identified themselves as Chechen rebels, and were demanding to speak with Turkish Interior Minister Saadettin Tantan.

He was in the capital, Ankara, and it was not clear whether he planned to comply with their demands.

According to police, the gunmen said they were loyal to Muhamed Tokcan, who led the hijacking of the Avrasy passenger ship on the Black Sea in 1995.

Tokcan was in the hotel negotiating by phone with Istanbul Governor Erol Cakir, who was also the lead negotiator.

He escaped from a Turkish jail in 1997 after serving less than a year of an eight-year sentence.

He was re-arrested in 1999 trying to leave Turkey for the Yugoslav province of Kosovo and was released in December 2000 under a widespread prison amnesty.

The gunmen did not demand to see Tokcan.

Scenes of panic

Earlier, witnesses described events surrounding the storming of the hotel.

police
Turkish police officers take position outside of the Swissotel in Istanbul  

Hotel worker Alisan Ercan said he heard shots and saw four or five gunmen in the lobby as he ran from the hotel.

Hotel guests were hiding between tables in the lobby, Ercan said.

A Belgian man visiting guests in the hotel told Reuters: "I came into the lobby...then there were two or three men who rushed in. They were dressed in black and there were shots. I ran out immediately and when I was standing in the garden I heard more shots."

Other witnesses told Turkish television that guests had screamed and ran as the attackers burst into the hotel.

Russian forces are engaged in their second major military assault on Chechnya, aiming to bring the rebel Caucasus region back under Moscow's control. The first Chechen conflict took place in 1994-1996.

Turkey arrested and jailed the hijackers of the Avrasya ferry but the majority of them subsequently escaped from prisons across Turkey.

No one was hurt in the four-day hijacking, despite threats to blow up the vessel



RELATED STORIES:
Russia plane hijack talks begin
March 15, 2001
U.N. launches Chechen appeal
January 26, 2001
Russia pledges cash to Chechnya
January 25, 2001

RELATED SITES:
The Bosphorus Swissotel
Chechen government
Republic of Turkey, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Embassy of the Republic of Turkey

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