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Hostage drama at Swiss hotel in Istanbul ends peacefully

A woman and her child walk free from an Istanbul hotel after being held hostage by Chechen gunmen Keystone

The hostage drama at a luxury Swiss hotel in the Turkish city of Istanbul has ended peacefully. Gunmen released some 120 staff and guests, including several Swiss nationals, after storming the hotel in what they said was a protest against Russian military action in Chechnya.

The hotel’s owner, Switzerland’s SAirGroup, confirmed that the gunmen had surrendered and released all the hostages unharmed. Among the captives were a nine-member Swissair crew and three other Swiss citizens.

Swiss embassy officials said the attackers had handed their weapons over to the Turkish security forces following the intervention of the Turkish interior minister, Sadettin Tantan.

The drama ended 12 hours after the gunmen, firing automatic rifles and shotguns, forced their way into the “Bosphorus” hotel, which is part of the Swissôtel chain. SAirGroup said some 600 guests were staying at the five-star hotel at the time.

Turkish security officials said the 13 gunmen had been taken to Istanbul police headquarters for questioning.

The Swiss foreign ministry did not take part in negotiations to free the hostages, but watched the situation closely and set up a crisis committee.

The seizure of the hotel came as SAirGroup, which owns Swissair, announced the sale of its Swissôtel chain to Singapore’s Raffles Holdings in a deal worth SFr520 million (see lead story on swissinfo’s business page).

One hostage, Erhan Erden, interviewed by Turkey’s private NTV television news, said the gunmen had apologised for what they were doing. “They said they are sorry, but they had to do this because of what is happening in Chechnya.”

An unsigned fax statement apparently from the gunmen’s group said their action was aimed at ending the “bloody and dirty attack on our homeland, the Caucasus”. The statement, read out on NTV television, promised: “we will not shed blood”.

The Anatolia news agency said that among the attackers was a Turkish gunman and former prisoner, Muhammed Tokcan, who led a group of pro-Chechen hijackers who seized control of a Russian ferry in the Black Sea in 1996. He was recently freed from prison under an amnesty.

Chechen hijackers seized control of a Russian airliner last month shortly after it left Istanbul, forcing it to fly to Saudi Arabia. Three people died when the plane was stormed.

Russia, which has been waging a campaign against separatists in Chechnya, condemned the storming of the hotel.

swissinfo with agencies

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR