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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Escape Long Taliban Captivity


Ending a year in captivity in the hands of Afghan rebels, a seven-man Russian air crew returned to their home town Monday having disarmed their guards and made a thriller-like escape in their Ilyushin cargo plane.

"We acted as one team, and all crew members displayed courage,'' chief pilot Vladimir Sharpatov told reporters on arrival before dawn Monday in Kazan, the capital city of the Russian region of Tatarstan. "We were assisted by fate, success and sheer luck.''

The pilots flew back via the United Arab Emirates and Moscow where they were to receive a heroes' welcome, but they asked the government to let them see their families before receiving awards from President Boris Yeltsin.

"We asked to get home first, since we have been longing so much for it during our captivity,'' Sharpatov said.

Yeltsin was expected to meet the crew in the Kremlin in a week. On Sunday, he telephoned them while they were being flown back from Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, where they had flown in their daring escape Moscow opposition fighters. In seizing the cargo plane, Taliban said a shipment of ammunition from Albania on board was evidence of Russian military support for Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani's government.

Soviet troops propped up a communist government in Afghanistan from 1979 until they withdrew in 1989, but Moscow denied any involvement in backing the current government.

Nevertheless, the crew were held hostage by Taliban in the city of Kandahar in south Afghanistan for over a year. Despite numerous diplomatic missions, attempts to free the pilots failed, causing the Russian government huge public embarrassment.

Finally on Friday, the seven flyers boarded their Il-76 four-engine cargo plane on the airstrip at Kandahar under the pretext of carrying out maintenance work.

Aircraft radio operator Yury Vshivtsev said after three attempts to start up the engines failed Friday, Taliban leaders left them with three junior guards.

The engines eventually started and the plane took off, narrowly missing two Taliban vehicles which rushed to block their path.

"They were a little late, about five or three seconds. We passed over the vehicles at the end of the runway," he said.

The three guards on board, two armed with Kalashnikov automatic rifles, became alarmed only when the plane was already in the air but the Russian crew overpowered them and tied them up .

A Taliban fighter jet and a military helicopter took off to intercept them, but the Russians flew the huge 130-ton cargo plane at just 50 meters, a risky move aimed at confusing radar.

"We had been planning for more than half a year," aircraft radio operator Vshivtsev said.

The plane flew over Iran and landed Friday in the United Arab Emirates. Vitaly Ignatenko, a Russian deputy prime minister who flew to Abu Dhabi to meet the crew, said Moscow had earlier negotiated an escape route via Iran.

According to Izvestia, the United Arab Emirates refused to allow Russia to extradite the three captured Taliban guards to Moscow.

Taliban commanders told U.S. Senator Hank Brown last week that they would keep the Russians until Afghans being held in Russia were released. Moscow says it has no Afghans in detention.

A U.S. Embassy statement in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, said Sunday that a request Brown made to the Taliban to allow the airmen more time to maintain their plane had paved the way for the escape.

NTV Independent Television quoted Russian military sources who speculated that the Taliban may have at least partly colluded in the escape. The sources said that allowing the escape may have been a way of releasing the hostages without appearing to concede to Russian demands. ()