Turkey hotel hostages released
ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Up to 100 hostages held at a luxury Istanbul hotel have been freed unharmed after their pro-Chechen captors surrendered, CNN Turk reports.
The standoff involving about 20 gunmen had lasted nearly 12 hours before the hostage-takers armed with automatic rifles surrendered on Monday morning.
Police said they had encountered no resistance from the gunmen and there were no reports of anybody being injured.
The hostage-takers had earlier identified themselves as Chechen rebels and told CNN by phone that they were demanding the United States use its influence to denounce Russia for its part in the war in Chechnya.
The gunmen had taken control of the Swissotel Bosphorus amid a hail of bullets around 11:30 p.m. (2030 GMT) on Sunday evening.
Some hotel guests fled during the initial chaos, while local media said about 25 hostages had been released after the standoff began.
A Caucasus group later said the hostage-takers just wanted to attract the world's attention to the Chechen situation which it said had been undermined during the past two months.
The Turkish authorities are reported to have taken a firm stand during negotiations while the Russian government had condemned the taking of hostages as a "barbaric act."
Russian authorities said the "crime should not go unpunished," Interfax news agency said, quoting a high-ranking official.
Four Russians from the north west of the country near the Finnish border had been among those taken hostage, and the Kremlin had been in constant contact with Turkish authorities during the siege, Russian officials added.
Around 14 hostage-takers were taken by bus to the police headquarters in Istanbul for questioning.
Those who had been held are still mainly in the hotel where business is returning to normal, CNN Turk's Ferhat Boratav said.
The first round of talks had involved Istanbul's governor and police chief, but Turkey's Interior Minister, Sadettin Tantan, was in the hotel shortly before the end of the hostage situation.
SAirGroup, which currently owns the hotel, said 650 guests were signed in, and that it has sold the business to Singapore's Raffles Holdings.
Hundreds of Turkish police, including snipers, had surrounded the hotel when the siege began and about six ambulances had been parked outside.
The gunmen, who support the high profile rebel Muhamed Tokcan, had earlier held talks with the governor of Istanbul, Erol Cakir, and the chief of police.
The hostages were mostly Western, including many Europeans and some Americans. Britain's foreign office confirmed on Monday that some Britons had been held hostage.
Private CNN-Turk television said 11 SwissAir workers were among the hostages at the hotel which overlooks the Bosphorus .
The gunmen had used hotel staff to take guests from their rooms and had brought them down to the lobby. Others were able to escape from the building and were taken to the Istanbul Hilton.
Police said the gunmen were loyal to Tokcan, who led the hijacking of a passenger ship on the Black Sea in 1996.
The hostage-leader 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.
Scenes of panic
Earlier, witnesses described events surrounding the storming of the hotel.
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, he said.
A Belgian man visiting guests in the hotel told Reuters news agency: "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. About 60 guests and 40 workers escaped the hotel, many leaving through fire exists, Anatolia news agency reported.
It is the fourth such action carried out by pro-Chechen forces in Turkey during the past two years, including the taking of hostages on two separate Russian planes.
Russian forces are currently 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.
Sympathy for the Chechens exists among some in Turkey as they share the same Islamic faith. Around five million Turks trace their roots to Caucasus areas such as Chechnya while an estimated 25,000 Chechens live in Istanbul and western Turkey.
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