MINERALNYE VODY, Russia (AP) Heavily armed Russian commandos rushed a hijacked bus in a lightning raid Tuesday, killing a Chechen gunman who had seized it to demand freedom for five Chechens jailed for another hijacking.
The commandos set off concussion grenades and a sniper shot the gunman in the head when he peered out to investigate the noise, said Valery Kavtosenkov of the Federal Security Service. Several people on the bus were injured by flying glass.
The bus passengers were being interrogated to determine if any were linked to the hijacking. The bus was carrying more than 40 passengers when it was seized Tuesday morning not far from separatist Chechnya, and a dozen passengers were freed during the standoff.
Initially, authorities said two hijackers took control of the bus. But late Tuesday, it was unclear if there had been a second hijacker at all or if the second hijacker somehow escaped or mingled with the passengers.
The dead hijacker, who was identified as Sultan-Said Idiyev, an ethnic Chechen, had a bomb attached to his body, the Interfax news agency quoted regional prosecutor Robert Adelkhanyan as saying.
The precisely coordinated action that brought an end to the daylong crisis was praised by President Vladimir Putin, but the hijacking also underlined Russias inability to bring Chechen rebels to heel.
The Stavropol region, where the hijacking occurred, is adjacent to war-ravaged Chechnya and the separatist republics violence often spills into the region despite Russias fierce military actions against the rebels.
Russian troops are trying to restore Moscows control over the breakaway region, which achieved de facto independence in a 1994-96 war. Federal forces went back into Chechnya in September 1999 after rebels attacked a neighboring region, and after apartment bombings blamed on Chechen terrorists killed about 300 people.
The hijacking also provoked echoes of the criticism raised against Putin last year for his slow response to the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster. Presidential spokesman Alexei Gromov said Tuesday that Putin gave orders in the hijacking from the very minute it was known that hostages had been taken, Interfax reported.
The bus was commandeered at 7 a.m., and during the day 12 hostages were released, including a 26-year-old man who had been shot and was hospitalized.
The hijacking was aimed at winning the release of five Chechens who were jailed in a similar hijacking in 1994. In the afternoon, officials said two of the five had been brought to the Mineralnye Vody airport.
After the seizure, the bus was forced along a major highway toward the airport in Mineralnye Vody, a resort town not far from Chechnya, but it was stopped just outside the airport, which was sealed off and ringed with troops, fire trucks and ambulances.
In the hours of the standoff, anxious passengers peered nervously from behind the bus curtains, which were drawn against the intense midday heat. Several of the vehicles windows were broken.
As the temperature soared past 100 degrees, an airport doctor, Margarita Karishnina, was allowed on to the bus.
I was there attending to people with heart problems, giving injections, medicines, she said.
The bus was heading from Nevinnomyssk to Stavropol when it was commandeered. The acting chief of the Nevinnomyssk police department was shot while talking with the hijackers, a security service duty officer said.
Mineralnye Vody, about 550 miles south of Moscow, has been the scene of other bus hijackings in recent years.
In 1992, two armed hijackers seized a bus with 18 passengers in Mineralnye Vody and demanded the release of two jailed friends. The hijackers fled to Chechnya and were given asylum by rebels.
In May 1994, four kidnappers with guns and a grenade grabbed a bus with 29 people, including children, teachers and parents in southern Russia. They released the hostages in exchange for a multimillion dollar ransom and fled to Chechnya in a helicopter. Authorities caught three of them and killed the fourth in a shootout. After a trial, the hijackers and their accomplices were jailed.
The five prisoners whose release was demanded were jailed for that attack, but the ITAR-Tass news agency said one of the prisoners had died of tuberculosis.
In July 1994, four Chechens hijacked a bus with 41 passengers and demanded $15 million. Five hostages and a kidnapper were killed, 15 people were wounded and the surviving gunmen were arrested.
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