In the late evening of April 22, thirty armed men took some 120 hostages in Istanbul’s luxury Swissotel. Identifying themselves as Chechens, they then demanded a meeting with Turkish Interior Minister Saadettin Tantan. Several shots were heard during the standoff, but it later turned out that the hostage takers had simply fired into the air. Turkish security guards surrounded the hotel, after which negotiations began. The gunmen turned out to be Turkish citizens, some of Chechen origin. They were led by Muhammed Tokcan, who was only recently released from jail for having led an armed takeover of a Turkish ferry in January 1996 to protest the action of Russian forces in the Chechen conflict. In the latest incident, the hostage takers told police that their goal was to attract the attention of the United States to what is going on in Chechnya, so that Washington would put political pressure on Moscow. All the hostages were released by midday on April 23, after which the gunmen surrendered to police (Russian agencies, April 23).
In the 1996 incident, a group of hijackers led by Tokcan and calling itself “the Grandchildren of Sheik Shamil,” after the nineteenth century Chechen leader, seized the Avrasya ferry and its 120 passengers in the Turkish port of Trabzon, demanding that Russian forces stop their siege of a group of Chechen rebels who, led by Salman Raduev, had taken 2,000 hostages in the Dagestani town of Kizlyar and then fled to the village of Pervomaiskoye. The Turkish terrorists, threatening to shoot one of the ferry’s passengers every ten minutes, forced the crew of the vessel to take it out to sea and sail toward Istanbul. Tokcan announced that the ferry had been mined with explosives, and threatened to blow it up in the Bosphoros if the Russian forces at Pervomaiskoye did not end their siege. After Raduev’s men managed to escape the Russian encirclement and make it back into Chechnya, Tokcan and his band released the captured ferry and surrendered to the Turkish authorities.
Following this week’s hotel seizure in Istanbul, Rakhman Dushaev, the Chechen government’s representative in Turkey, released a statement saying that the Chechen authorities viewed any action which violated the norms and principles of international law as unacceptable to the Chechen state and its people. For two years, the statement continued, the Chechen state and the armed forces of the Chechen republic have been carrying out a war against the Russian aggressors and the fraternal Turkish people have been giving moral and material assistance to the Chechen state in that war (Deutsche Welle, April 23). Last month, three ethnic Chechens hijacked a Tu-154 passenger jet flying from Istanbul to Moscow and diverted it to Medina, Saudi Arabia. Three people–a Russian stewardess, a Turkish passenger and one of the hijackers–were killed when Saudi security forces stormed the jet. The Chechen rebels denied having authorized or participated in the hijacking.
While Turkey’s official ideology boasts only one people, the country in reality is multi-ethnic, with some twenty different ethnic groups living within its borders. People from the Caucasus began emigrating to Turkey in the nineteenth century, during the war which pitted the people of the North Caucasus and Abkhazia against Russian troops. It is believed that some 5 million people with roots in the Caucasus live in Turkey today, and some of them have created organizations which actively support the Chechen separatists. The best-known Chechen separatist website, Kavkaz.org, is put in three languages–Russian, English and Turkish (Deutsche Welle, April 23). However, while many people in Turkey sympathize with the Chechen people’s plight, several leading Turkish newspapers yesterday condemned the hostage-taking incident in Istanbul and its mastermind, Muhammed Tokcan, accusing the hostage takers of harming Turkey’s tourism sector (Associated Press, April 24).
RUSSIAN MILITARY AND CHECHEN REBELS ACCUSE ONE ANOTHER OF TARGETING CIVILIANS.