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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Turkey Denies Making Deal With Ship Hijackers

ISTANBUL -- Turkey's interior minister denied Thursday that any deal had been made with hijackers holding 200 hostages aboard a ferry and said they would not be allowed to sail into the Bosporus strait to reach Istanbul.


"We came to the conclusion that the gunmen should not enter the straits," Interior Minister Mehmet Unusan told the private ATV channel.


Unusan said it was against international maritime rules to allow ships loaded with explosives to sail into the Bosporus waterway.


His statement contradicted earlier reports that Turkish officials offered hijackers a televised news conference to air their grievances when they reached Istanbul in exchange for the release of the captives aboard the ferry.


The hijackers have threatened to blow up the Avrasya-Eurasia ferry unless Russian forces stop fighting a group of Chechen rebels holed up with hostages in the southern Russian village of Pervomaiskoye. But they have also said they may free their hostages for a chance to air their grievances.


Sonmez Koksal, head of Turkish intelligence, was reported to have told the hijackers Wednesday they could go to Istanbul, and if they released the hostages they would be allowed to hold a live, televised news conference.


"When you bring the ship to Istanbul, will you end the hijacking?" Koksal said to Muhammed Tokcan, the bearded leader of the hijackers, in a conversation played on Turkish television.


"Give us free passage to Istanbul and the matter can be developed under your control," Tokcan said in reply.


However, there was no indication that a formal agreement has been reached and Anatolia news agency said its report that Koksal had told the gunmen they could proceed safely to Istanbul in exchange for an end to the hijacking was inaccurate.


Anatolia said it had confused Koksal with the head of a Turkish Caucasian association, whom it identified as Sonmez Baykan. It was not clear how the mistake was made and why there was a delay of almost 24 hours in correcting it.


The white ferry continued sailing west along the southern coast of the Black Sea on Thursday with Turkish patrol boats shadowing the vessel in cold, blustery weather with high waves.


Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller said that two Turkish destroyers and a frigate joined the trail in the Black Sea. It was not immediately clear if the military vessels were sent as part of a plan to launch a rescue operation. One of the gunmen told the Anatolia news agency in a telephone interview that they would release one of the hostages because of his diabetic condition. The hostage is a policeman who was initially reported to have been wounded when the hijackers took over the ferry. The gunman said the hostage would be handed over to a police helicopter which would land on the ship, the report said.


Turkish security forces have been in constant contact with the gunmen by radio and cellular telephone. The police chief in Istanbul, in the direction the ferry is headed, said extraordinary security measures were in place on land and in the Bosporus strait.


A crew member of the hijacked ferry, reached by The Associated Press by telephone, said Thursday the atmosphere on board remained tense.


The hijackers were on the ship's deck, vigilant for possible attack, while the hostages remained confined to the ship's restaurant, said the crewman, who declined to give his name.


Rough weather was slowing the boat, now not expected to reach Istanbul before Friday.


There are eight gunmen, according to Turkish officials. There were conflicting reports regarding their nationalities, but six are believed Turkish and two from the Caucasus.


The hijackers seized the ferry Tuesday night in the port of Trabzon shortly before it was to leave for Sochi, in Russia. Turkish officials have said there are 144 passengers and 55 crew members being held captive. Various accounts said the total included more than 30 Turkish hostages and about 100 Russians.


(AP, Reuters)