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Monday, April 23, 2001, updated at 09:29(GMT+8)

Chechen Gunmen Take Hostages at Turkish Hotel

An unidentified man, believed to be a Chechen gunman, walks in the lobby of the five star Swissotel in Istanbul April 22, 2001, after a group of armed Chechens forced their way into the hotel taking staff and guests hostage late April 22.

Armed men firing guns forced their way into a luxury hotel in Istanbul early on Monday and took guests and staff hostage in a protest against Russian military action in Chechnya, witnesses said.

The group, armed with pump-action shotguns and automatic rifles, fired off rounds and forced staff of the Swissotel in Turkey's biggest city to lie down in the lobby and demanded to speak to Interior Minister Saadettin Tantan.

"We have learned that some of the guests at the hotel are being held. They (the attackers) say they are Chechen," the state-run Anatolian news agency quoted Istanbul police chief Kazim Abanoz as saying.

He said the group had claimed to be 20 to 25 strong.

Among the attackers was a Turkish gunman and former prisoner who led a group of pro-Chechen hijackers who seized control of a Russian ferry on the Black Sea in 1996, Anatolian said, citing senior police sources.

A Belgian man visiting guests in hotel told Reuters: "I came into the lobby...then there were two or three men who rushed in. They were dressed in black and there were shots. I ran out immediately and when I was standing in the garden I heard more shots."

Other witnesses told Turkish television that guests had screamed and ran as the attackers burst into the hotel but there were no reports of injuries.

Ambulances and a heavy police presence waited near the hotel but the complex and its surroundings were quiet.

Television pictures taken from outside the hotel showed at least one armed man patrolling the lobby and people who appeared to guests walking with their arms raised in the air.

Witnesses outside the hotel saw two groups of a total of at least 10 guests leave the main entrance. They were met by members of a police cordon that surrounded the hotel complex and driven away. Anatolian said the attackers had gathered hostages in a conference hall on the fifth floor of the main block.

Armed and masked special force officers were at the scene and other policemen waited in buses parked nearby.

An employee of the U.S. consulate at the site declined to comment on the numbers or nationality of the guest at the hotel, a complex of hotel and residential blocks which overlooks the Bosphorus straits running through Istanbul.

Anatolian said Turkish gunman Muhammet Emin Tokcan was among the attackers. Tokcan led the 1996 hijacking of the Russian "Avrasya" ferryboat in protest against Russian military action in Chechnya. He escaped from a Turkish jail in 1997 after serving less than a year of an eight-year sentence.

He was re-arrested in 1999 trying to leave Turkey for the Yugoslav province of Kosovo and was released in December 2000 under a widespread prison amnesty.

Turkey has a history of pro-Chechen attacks and sympathy for the Chechen separatist cause runs high in the country, where the Chechens are seen as fellow Muslims struggling for independence from an oppressive power.

During the ferry hijack, Tokcan kept in contact with Turkish authorities and journalists by mobile phone.

Russian forces are engaged in their second major military assault on Chechnya, aiming to bring the rebel Caucasus region back under Moscow's control. The first Chechen conflict took place in 1994-1996.

Turkey arrested and jailed the hijackers of the Avrasya ferry but the majority of them subsequently escaped from prisons across Turkey. No one was hurt in the four-day hijacking, despite threats to blow up the vessel. The hijackers surrendered to authorities peacefully in Istanbul.

Last month, another group of hijackers demanding an end to the war in Chechnya seized a Russian airliner en route from Istanbul to Moscow and forced it to fly to Saudi Arabia.

Some 170 Russian and Turkish hostages were freed after Saudi commandos stormed the plane in Medina, but a flight attendant and one hijacker were killed in the raid.

The aircraft hijacking appeared to be a family operation by one Chechen and his two teenaged sons.

The United Nations strongly condemned Russia on Friday for its "disproportionate" use of force in separatist Chechnya and called for "credible criminal investigations" into alleged war crimes by some servicemen.

In This Section

An unidentified man, believed to be a Chechen gunman, walks in the lobby of the five star Swissotel in Istanbul April 22, 2001, after a group of armed Chechens forced their way into the hotel taking staff and guests hostage late April 22.

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