Teen-age Hostages Take Snapshots During Ordeal With AM-Russia-Politics, Bjt
MOSCOW (AP) _ It may be the world’s most unusual class photograph: seven teen-agers with nervous smiles, huddling inside the green fuselage of an explosives-packed military helicopter.
Certainly it’s a scene that ninth-graders at School No. 25 in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don will never forget. Inna Stetsenko, 15, snapped the Polaroid of her classmates while being held hostage by four masked gunmen demanding a $10 million ransom.
The four-day hostage drama ended happily with the release of the hostages and the arrest of the gunmen Monday after a dramatic chase through the snowy Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia.
But intriguing details continued to emerge Tuesday:
-Inna and the released hostages said they relieved tension by playing tick- tack-toe and taking snapshots of one another with a Polaroid camera. Authorities are holding the pictures as evidence for the trial of the kidnappers.
-Defense Minister Pavel Grachev said the kidnappers’ demand to go to Iran was a smoke screen for an elaborate escape plan involving accomplices with a car and another helicopter. The accomplices remain at large.
-The kidnappers told interrogators they needed money for treatment of AIDS. Blood tests indicated three of the four men are free of the disease. The ringleader’s initial test was inconclusive, the Interfax news agency reported.
The drama began last Thursday when the gunmen burst into the school in Rostov-on-Don, a river port 600 miles south of Moscow. Wearing wool masks and firing into the air, they herded a dozen teen-agers into a bus and then commandeered a helicopter.
The mayor of the city and a police general offered to trade places with the children, but the kidnappers refused. They demanded a flight crew and were given two volunteer air force pilots.
The gunmen flew south to Mineralnye Vody, a mineral springs resort, where the government delivered $10 million in U.S. currency. After freeing the children a few at a time, the kidnappers flew to the wild Dagestan region of southern Russia and tried to vanish into the mountains with duffel bags stuffed with cash.
Police recovered about $9.4 million of the ransom when they captured the hijackers. The gunmen claim to have tossed the rest from the helicopter, showering the woods with handfuls of $100 bills so that people would pick them up and spend them, making it hard for police to trace any marked notes.
The defense minister told Interfax that accomplices were waiting with a car and another helicopter near the village of Khasaviurt in Dagestan. But the pilots deceived the kidnappers by steering away from the other aircraft and landing near Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital, instead.
Grachev said Tuesday the pilots would be awarded medals for heroism.
Sophisticated military radar and the Russian version of an AWACS tracked the gunmen’s flight, officials said. Jet fighters with air-to-air missiles were put on alert, ready to destroy the helicopter.
The children, who have been reunited with their families, told reporters that the Polaroid camera they played with was provided by the kidnappers.
According to Russian newspaper accounts, the nervous gunmen thought police were secretly taking pictures of them during tense negotiations in Mineralnye Vody. They demanded that the police hand over the cameras.
The police had no cameras, but did not want to upset the kidnappers. So they ran out and bought the Polaroid, then gave it to the gunmen, who passed it along to the students inside the helicopter.