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Breaking News

Russian Jet Hijacked: Terrorists Believed To Be Chechens; Putin Interrupts Vacation To Take Charge

Aired March 15, 2001 - 10:00 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Now a drama unfolding in the Middle East. This is a breaking story that we've been following for the last couple of hours.

Hijackers have commandeered a Russian airliner. And they're now in flight with more than 160 people on board, this hijacked plane. CNN crews are compiling the latest on this breaking story.

Let's go now to CNN's Steve Harrigan. He's checking in from Moscow -- Steve.

STEVE HARRIGAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Leon, the numbers from the Russian government, at least 160 passengers on board, plus 12 crew members, and two terrorist.

Now, we've just heard some news from the Russian spokesman on Chechnya, the presidential spokesman. He said that the Russian government assumes that the two terrorists are Chechens.

As you know, Russia's been fighting a war in the breakaway republic for more than a year now, with rebels who want to establish an Islamic state in the south of Russia.

So the Russian spokesman not saying concretely that these two hijackers are Chechens, but saying that he believes that to be the case.

Secondly, Russian President Vladimir Putin, he's on vacation now, out in the wilderness of Siberia on a ski vacation. He's interrupted that holiday, now to take personal charge of what could be a rescue operation.

We have heard from Russian government sources that the Russian FSB, the intelligence service, has mobilized a group, if necessary to attempt to, quote, "liberate" that plane, if that situation arises.

Finally here just outside Moscow at the Vnukovo Airport, there are a lot of worried people. People waiting for their loved ones to come back from a trip to Turkey. Apparently, the numbers on board about 50 Turks, the rest most likely Russians. These were either people on holiday in Turkey or else shuttle traders, people who travel back and forth from Russia to Turkey, bringing back clothing and small appliances for sale here in outdoor markets. So, really, three bits of news here. First, a hint from the Russian government that it believes these two terrorists are Chechens.

Secondly, an interruption of the vacation of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And third, a very sad scene out at Vnukovo Airport where people have been told by a loud speaker that the plane is delayed because it has been hijacked -- Leon.

HARRIS: Steve, is there any other word that you're hearing there about why this plane is being routed the way it is? And is there any connection here at all with the location they are trying to take this plane to?

HARRIGAN: Right, it's not clear. The plane itself is a Tupolev 154. That's really a medium-ranged plane. It's the workforce here in Russia. It holds about 180 people. It can go about 4,000 miles maximum, depending on its payload.

Now, we've talked to Vnukovo Airline officials. They say they're not even sure where the plane is at this time. So no real word as to that.

Now, if it does prove true that these hijackers are Chechens, there could be a lot of factors involved in the choice of their destination. These are people who are fighting for a separate Islamic state. Some real radical rebel fighters in Russia's south. So if they are linked to the Chechen rebels, they could choose a site based on that -- Leon.

HARRIS: Understood. Steve Harrigan, reporting live from Moscow, thank you.

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