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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Court Gives Top Hijacker Death Penalty

A court Thursday sentenced to death by firing squad the leader of a gang which took 26 people hostage in southern Russia in May, Itar-Tass said.

Two other hijackers were each sentenced to 15-year strict-regime jail terms, the maximum prison term in Russia. The news agency said all the hijackers were citizens of the rebel Chechnya republic.

The trial was held in Pyatigorsk, a resort at the foot of the Caucasus mountains in the Stavropol region and the scene of four hijack attempts in the last eight months.

Itar-Tass said that during the trial the Stavropol prosecutor's office denounced actions by Chechen officials "which destabilize the northern Caucasus and promote terrorism and banditism."

Four gunmen seized a bus with 26 people on board on May 26, transferred to a helicopter with four of the hostages and flew off with a $10 million ransom. Three of the gunmen were captured on landing in the neighboring breakaway region of Chechnya.

All the hostages were released unharmed but the fate of the fourth gunman remains unclear. According to some sources, he was killed in a shootout with Russian commandos but other sources say he escaped and is hiding in Chechnya.

Chechnya, which declared independence from Russia in 1991, cooperated with Moscow in ending the May hijack. No such cooperation was forthcoming last week, when another four hijackers seized over 40 hostages.

Four hostages and one gunman died when Russian police commandos stormed a helicopter in which the hostage-takers were trying to flee.