Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 54

The aftermath of last week’s hijacking of a Russian passenger jet from Istanbul, Turkey to Medina, Saudi Arabia was the focus of Russian media over the weekend. Among the main topics of discussion were the identity of the hijackers and the circumstances under which three victims of the hijacking died when Saudi commandos stormed the Vnukovo Airlines Tu-154 on March 16. While some Russian media had originally quoted Chechen sources, including representatives of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, as identifying the leader of the hijackers as Aslambek Arsayev, a former Chechen interior minister, various media reported over the weekend that the hijacking was carried out by Supyan Arsayev, Aslambek’s brother, and Supyan’s two teenage sons. NTV television quoted Supyan Arsayev’s sister as saying that he had been seriously wounded during the 1994-1996 Chechen conflict, had moved to Turkey last year but was not been able to receive medical treatment there, and was thus on his way back to Russia for treatment. She suggested that Supyan’s injuries had left him mentally unstable. The hijackers had reportedly demanded that the plane be allowed to fly to Afghanistan, whose Taliban government is one of the few in the world to recognize the Chechen separatist movement (NTV, March 18; Moscow Times, March 19).

These and other reports reflect a growing consensus among some observers that the hijacking was not a premeditated terrorist act carried out by the Chechen separatist movement. This view jibes with reports that the hijackers, while claiming to have a bomb and threatening to blow the plane up, were in fact armed only with knives. In addition, while various Russian media initially accepted official Saudi reports that the hijackers had murdered one of the passengers, a Turkish construction worker, and a stewardess, eyewitness were quoted over the weekend as saying the two victims were in fact shot–presumably by accident–by the Saudi commandos who stormed the jet. One of the hijackers was killed during the operation to liberate the hijacked plane (, March 18). Russian media had given prominent play to the initial reports that lead hijacker Supyan Arsayev slit the throat of the stewardess, Yulia Fomina, at the start of the Saudi commando operation. Last night, NTV’s weekly news analysis program Itogi, aired comments by Robert Ivan, a former commander of the Alfa group, the Soviet KGB’s special antiterrorist unit, who strongly criticized the Saudi authorities’ decision to storm the plane. The program used such criticism as a means of implicitly criticizing President Vladimir Putin, who in response to the hijacking had cut short a vacation at a ski resort in Siberia’s Khakassia region and set up a special crisis team. “There is the impression that the decision on the storming [of the plane] was political,” Itogi’s correspondent said. “It is known that the Saudis were in contact with Moscow, and the Russian special services were trying at any price to prevent the plane from flying to Afghanistan and the Taliban. That price turned to be the life of stewardess Yulia Fomina and the Turkish construction worker.” The newspaper Vremya Novostei reported today that the Federal Security Service and Prosecutor General’s Office had categorically refused to comment on the eyewitness reports that Yulia Fomina died as a result of gunfire from the Saudi commandos. The paper, which reported that Putin had personally sanctioned the Saudi authorities decision to storm the plane, wrote that the Russian authorities’ primary concern was to paint the Chechen separatists as terrorists and to extradite the hijackers to Russia. Putin himself used the terrorist to justify the Russian military operation in Chechnya (Vremya Novostei, March 19; NTV, March 18).