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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Secret Rules to Destroy Hijacked Jets Stir Fears

After years of deliberations, Russia this month joined the handful of countries that allow hijacked airliners to be shot down to prevent the doomsday scenario of a plane slamming into a nuclear station.

The ground rules for shooting airliners -- as well as for sinking passenger ships and opening fire on terrorists in apartment buildings -- are now being drawn up by the Defense Ministry.

But they will be top secret and will most likely not make the country any safer, said independent defense experts and one of the authors of the new anti-terrorism law, which President Vladimir Putin signed on March 6.

After Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who is also a deputy prime minister, approves the rules, they will only need a go-ahead from the Justice Ministry to go into force.

"We are stuck in a trap. The regulations in the law are vague, and I expect that Ivanov's order will contradict them, making a mess of the decision-making process," said Viktor Ilyukhin, a Communist deputy who co-drafted the anti-terrorism law in the State Duma's Security Committee.

"As a result, we cannot guarantee that a plane set to ram into the Kremlin will be shot down or that a plane that terrorists are using to blackmail the government -- without any real plans to ram it into a sensitive facility -- is spared destruction," Ilyukhin said.

The anti-terrorism law does not clearly spell out the chain of command in a hijacking crisis. As such, Ivanov's instructions are all but certain to aggravate the decision-making process. Furthermore, if a plane were mistakenly shot down, there would be no trail leading back to those responsible.

The law says the military should destroy a plane hijacked by terrorists if the terrorists reject an order to land and if there is "a real danger of death to people or an environmental catastrophe."

The military should also destroy a plane if there is "reliable" information that the plane will be used to commit a terrorist attack and if all means to ground it are exhausted. The law allows the military to sink hijacked ships under similar conditions. The military could begin an anti-terrorist operation only with orders from the president.

Ilyukhin said the law contained two major weaknesses: how to judge that a hijacker's threats or promises are reliable, and how to establish that all means to ground a plane have been exhausted.

He said it would have taken only two weeks to make the wording of the law more precise, but that the Kremlin had put deputies under strong pressure to pass it quickly. He said he did not vote for the final version of the law.

When the legislation cleared the Federation Council, the head of its Security Committee, Viktor Ozerov, said Ivanov would issue a secret order regulating the conditions under which a civilian airliner hijacked by terrorists could be shot down.

Defense Ministry spokeswoman Olga Detyuchenko refused to comment on the planned rules, calling the matter a state secret.

Ozerov said decisive factors would be the number of people on board the plane and the area where the plane would crash.

The state, however, has shown little regard for the lives of hostages in recent terrorist crises. Special forces pumped a mysterious gas into Moscow's Dubrovka theater when some 800 people were taken hostage by Chechen rebels in 2002, and 129 hostages died, most from the effects of the gas. A total of 331 hostages died in the Beslan school attack in 2004, most of them in the explosions and gunbattle that ended the three-day standoff. Survivors and relatives have accused the military of using flamethrowers -- an accusation the authorities deny.

Soldiers and their tanks have needlessly destroyed buildings and property during strikes against suspected terrorists holed up in apartment buildings in Makhachkala and Nalchik.

"I don't believe that the number of hostages will mean a lot here, given the recent experience of deploying the military in anti-terrorist operations," said Alexander Golts, an independent defense analyst.

Golts recalled the crash of a Russian fighter jet in Lithuania in September, after both its communication and control systems broke down. "Is there any guarantee that this could not happen to a civilian plane that in this case was marked for destruction?" he said.

One of the crucial questions will be who has the authority to issue the command to down a plane.

The new law says responsibility for an anti-terrorism operation rests with the chief of the regional branch of the Federal Security Service, who also is to serve as the head of the crisis headquarters.

"Now imagine a situation in which the official, let's say a colonel, decides that a plane hijacked by terrorists needs to be shot down. Should he order the president to bring the military into the crisis? Or, if the president has already brought them in, should this FSB official order the defense minister to destroy the civilian airliner?" Ilyukhin said.

He said a rapid response would only be possible if the authority to shoot a plane was delegated to lower-ranking military officers who could be members of the crisis headquarters, but this, he said, was unlikely to happen.

Even if it did happen, military officers would probably stall in fear of making the wrong decision and demand an order from their superiors, thus losing critical time, said Alexander Khramchikhin, an analyst with the Institute of Political and Military Analysis. He said a plane hijacked during takeoff from any Moscow airport would take only one to two minutes to reach the city center.

In the other countries that allow their militaries to shoot down planes -- the United States, Poland, India, Slovakia and Ukraine -- the decision has to be made by head of the state, the defense minister or the commander of the air force. Germany passed a law last year that allowed planes to be shot down, but the country's Constitutional Court invalidated it in February, saying it contradicted the constitutional right to life.

Russians appear to be split on the idea. Forty-one percent of the respondents to a survey carried out by the state-controlled VTsIOM earlier this month opposed shooting down planes, while 48 percent said they favored the measure. The 1,599 respondents across the country overwhelmingly backed other provisions in the anti-terrorism law, including telephone eavesdropping and authorities' breaking into private property. The poll had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.

Defense analysts criticized the secrecy behind Ivanov's rules, arguing that the people must be aware of things that relate directly to their lives.

"The veil of secrecy only shows that the authorities understand that citizens do not trust them," Golts said.

Khramchikhin said the secrecy would allow the military to claim that every plane that was shot down had been aimed at a sensitive facility.

In contrast, he said, only two of the dozens of airliner hijackings in the past decades had targeted such facilities. The first attempt was in December 1994, when Algerian Islamists hijacked a plane and steered it toward Paris, he said. The plan was foiled by French special services who stormed the plane in Marseilles during refueling. The second attack was in the United States, on Sept. 11, 2001.

Andrei Soldatov, a security analyst with Agentura.ru, said shooting planes and sinking ships was a passive way to protect citizens and that inventive terrorists would sooner or later find a way to minimize the risk of being shot at. "Security agencies need to shift their focus to active protection, meaning the disruption of terrorist networks before they can organize terrorist attacks," he said.