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Breaking News

Hijacked Russian Plane Lands In Medina, Saudi Arabia

Aired March 15, 2001 - 11:01 a.m. ET

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

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to begin with breaking news out of the Middle East. A hijacked Russian plane is now reportedly on the ground in Medina, Saudi Arabia. Authorities say the plane landed about 20 minutes ago. It had been hijacked just after takeoff from Istanbul, Turkey. More than 170 passengers and crew are believed to be on board.

Our Istanbul bureau chief Jane Arraf joining us now. She's on the phone with the latest -- Jane.

JANE ARRAF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Daryn, as you mentioned, Saudi authorities are now confirming that that plane, which was hijacked just a few hours ago shortly after takeoff, has landed in the holy city of Medina.

Turkish authorities here at the Istanbul Airport, where we are, have set up a crisis center, talking to relatives. And the relatives say that they are relieved the plane has landed, that are desperately trying to get in touch with the people on the plane.

One person said his cousin, his 20-year-old cousin, who was here for the Muslim holiday last week, was heading back. And he was terribly worried, but little less worried now that the plane is actually on the ground.

It was quite a drama after takeoff. The plane was hijacked just 10 minutes after taking off, shortly before two o'clock local time. Turkish authorities say there were two hijackers, one armed with a knife. At least one person is said to have been wounded, stabbed. And the plane dropped by 10,000 feet after what appeared to be a scuffle in the cockpit.

There were a couple of hours the plane appeared to be headed toward several competing destinations, speculating as to where it was going. But it was said that the hijackers had demanded that it be flown to Medina, one of the holiest for Muslims.

We are awaiting word now on whether negotiations are going on with the hijackers and how those passengers actually are -- Daryn.

KAGAN: So Jane, the plane is on the ground. But as we understand it, everybody is still on board that plane?

ARRAF: As far as we know, there's been no word of either the hijackers released the passengers or anything has happened to end that stage of hijacking, which could in fact be one of the more dangerous stages of it.

It doesn't mean that the hijacking is over. But certainly, they're in a better position, now that they're out of the air and have found somewhere to land in what appears to be one of the places that the hijackers, who had asked to be taken to an Arab destination, had asked to land in -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Do we have any more information about the number of hijackers or what the motivation might be, Jane?

ARRAF: Turkish authorities say that there were two hijackers. The Turkish transport minister originally said that they were identified as Chechens. And we have no confirmation of that. But I'm sorry; there are quite a lot of noise here at the airport.

No confirmation that they are indeed Chechens. But that was the first word that came out from what appeared to be a radio contact between the plane and the ground here at the Istanbul Airport. They had said that they wanted to be flown to an Arab destination. And the choice of Medina, if in fact, they made that choice would put a religious aspect on it.

There are Chechen separatists who are trying to fight for an Islamic state. However, again, no confirmation that that is who they are. And no confirmation that they had asked to be flown to Medina. But that is where the plane is now at this moment -- Daryn.

KAGAN: All right, Jane, we'll let you go, so you can go gather some more information for us. That's Jane Arraf, our CNN Istanbul chief, bringing us the latest on that hijacking. Thank you.

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