Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 148

On July 31, an armed Chechen seized a bus carrying forty-one people near the town of Neveinnomyssk in Stavropol Krai and then took it to the town of Mineral’nye Vody. The hijacker–whom the authorities later identified as Sultan-Said Idiyev, an ethnic Chechen and member of a rebel group who was wanted by police–demanded the release of a group of four Chechens who had been jailed for a 1994 bus hijacking in the same area. The Alfa antiterrorist unit later in the day stormed the bus at the Mineral’nye Vody airport, freeing all the hostages and killing the hijacker. Following the operation, President Vladimir Putin sent a message of congratulations to the security forces involved in the operation. Viktor Kazantsev, Putin’s representative to the Southern federal district, which includes the North Caucasus region, expressed satisfaction with the operation’s outcome, adding that anyone else who tried to carry out terrorist acts on Russian territory would meet the same unhappy end (Russian agencies, July 31-August 1).

The hijacking was just one in a series of such incidents in the North Caucasus going back to the late 1980s. In December 1988, a group of five armed men seized a bus with thirty students and teachers in the North Ossetian city of Ordzhonikidze (today’s Vladikavkaz), demanding a large sum of hard currency and a flight to Israel. The demands were met, but the Israeli authorities returned the hijackers to Russia. In December 1993 four armed men seized a teacher and twelve students in a school in Rostov, after which they took the hostages by bus to a military airport, demanding a helicopter and pilot along with US$10 million. The four kidnappers were captured four days later. In May 1994 in the Stavropol Krai settlement of Kinzhal, four armed Chechens seized a passenger bus traveling from Vladikavkaz to Stavropol with thirty-six passengers. They demanded US$10 million, a helicopter, weapons and narcotics, after which they flew with four hostages to Chechnya. Three of the kidnappers were apprehended immediately and the fourth was caught in 1995. In July 1994 four armed men seized a bus with forty passengers in Pyatigorsk, demanding US$15 million. Four people were killed when the authorities attempted to free the hostages at Mineral’nye Vody airport, but all the hijackers were captured.

In October 1995, a masked gunman seized a bus carrying twenty-seven South Korean tourists at the Kremlin, demanding US$10 million and a plane. Security forces eventually stormed the bus, killing the hostage taker and freeing the tourists. In September 1996, a gunman seized a bus with passengers at the airport in Makhachkala, Dagestan, demanding US$100,000 and a helicopter. Gadzhi Makhachev, a deputy in Dagestan’s People’s Assembly, convinced the terrorist to release twenty-seven hostages in exchange for free passage to Chechnya. The hijacker received 60 million rubles and disappeared in Chechnya. In April 1997, a Chechen, Zaindi Tibiev, seized a bus with thirty passengers at Makhachkala Airport, demanding a helicopter and US$100,000. After negotiations, Tibiev released the hostages, keeping only General Magomed Tinomagomedov, Dagestan’s military commander, who was later exchanged for Amar Tubaliev, a police colonel. Tubaliev managed to overcome and capture Tibiev (Regions.ru, July 31).

This week’s successful operation to free the hostages in Mineral’nye Vody was greeted with praise and delight in the Russian media, and there is no doubt that at a successful operation to free hostages from an armed terrorist–in which none of the hostages are seriously injured–is a cause for celebration. Some aspects of the incident remain unclear, however, including precisely what the hijacker, Sultan-Said Idiyev, was demanding. There were initial reports that he was demanding contact with the government, but these were quickly supplanted by official information that he was only demanding the release of those involved in the 1994 bus hijacking, weapons and money. No one has asked whether he indeed asked to be put in contact with the government and, if so, precisely with whom. It is unlikely that a terrorist who had already gone so far as to seize a passenger bus would have wanted to talk to top government officials simply about releasing other hijackers from jail, and thus it is entirely possible that he had political demands related to the Chechen conflict. However, even if this was the case, it is unlikely that the Russian special services officials who negotiated with the terrorist will reveal it anytime soon.

It is also highly probable that this will not be the last such terrorist act in the North Caucasus. Indeed, as long as the war in Chechnya continues and a political solution is not found, many Russian citizens will have to endure new tragedies and losses as a result of terrorism. Just today, the Moscow police tightened up security after the Interior Ministry in Makhachkala received an anonymous warning that a truck with explosives was heading from Stavropol to the capital (Radio Ekho Moskvy, August 2).