Istanbul hotel gunmen - Hostage drama in Istanbul
Istanbul - April 22nd 2001

14 armed men identifying themselves as Chechen rebels, stormed a luxury hotel in central Istanbul Sunday night around 11:30 p.m. (4:30 p.m. ET)taking hostages.

The Swissotel is a five-star deluxe hotel. It stands in a spot with a finest view of the Bosphorus strait. There are 600 rooms for the guests, 18 conference halls and 7 exit doors.

The gunmen fired some shotguns and took at least 100 people hostage. They did not harm any hostage and allowed children and women to leave.

Hundreds of police and snipers were in front of the hotel and began negotiations with the rebels which continued into the night. Ambulances were also waiting outside the hotel, but no one was wounded.

The hostages were identified as mostly Western, including many Europeans and some Americans. The gunmen also used hotel staff to take guests from their rooms and bring them down to the lobby. Others were able to escape the building and were taken to the Istanbul Hilton.

Many prominent guests from Turkish society including close relatives of one of the biggest industrialists were in the hotel at the time. Some of these people were able to communicate with their mobile phones through the incident.

Local media reported that about 25 hostages had been released since the standoff began. Private CNN-Turk television said 11 Swissair workers were among the hostages. Cathay Pacific Airways said 16 crew members were staying at the hotel and some of them were believed to be hostages. Japan was also trying to confirm whether any of its 10 nationals, staying at the hotel, were among the hostages.

Rebels demanded to talk with Turkish Interior Minister Saadettin Tantan.
Mohamet Tokcan
The gunmen said they were loyal to Muhamed Tokcan, who led the hijacking of the Avrasy passenger ship on the Black Sea in 1995. Tokcan was in the hotel negotiating by phone with Istanbul Governor Erol Cakir, who was also the lead negotiator. He escaped from a Turkish jail in 1997 after serving less than a year of an eight-year sentence. He was re-arrested in 1999 trying to leave Turkey for the Yugoslav province of Kosovo and was released in December 2000 under a widespread prison amnesty.

Russian forces are engaged in their second major military assault on Chechnya, aiming to bring the rebel Caucasus region back under Moscow's control. The first Chechen conflict took place in 1994-1996.

Turkey arrested and jailed the hijackers of the Avrasya ferry but the majority of them subsequently escaped from prisons across Turkey. No one was hurt in the four-day hijacking, despite threats to blow up the vessel. The gunmen said in a written statement that their action was aimed at protesting Russia's "bloody attacks in the Caucasus" where Chechnya is located, private NTV television said. All Turkish hostages would be released in a sign of goodwill but most of the hostages "would remain as their guests until the end of the action,"the statement said, urging police to stay calm. "We don't have any intention to spill blood".

"We cannot be described as terrorists. Despite the fact that we have been forced to limit the freedom of innocent people, to carry arms and to carry out an action that terrorizes, we are definitely not terrorists." Shortly after the statement, three women walked out of the hotel with one of them holding a young child in her arms.

Turkey and Chechenia

The Chechen struggle is popular in Turkey. Turks not only share the Islamic faith with Chechens, but some 5 million Turks trace their roots to Caucasus areas such as Chechnya. About 25,000 Chechens live in Istanbul and western Turkey.

There are about 80 Caucasus organizations in Turkey and many have been active in promoting the Chechen cause. The Chechen rebels have been able to find much support within Turkey, primarily from the large number of Chechen emigres in the country.

Some of the journalists argue that the police in Istanbul was doing very strict car searches yesterday. These kind of searches have been relaxed since some weeks, due to a new decision but the searches of yesterday made the press think that police somehow knew there was going to be an action but they did not know exactly where and when.

The rebels ended their action on 10.50 am local time (3.50 am ET) on 23 April 2001. They released all the hostages, they also apologized for taking such an action on the economically challenged days of Turkey.

Chechnian Head of State Mr. Aslan Baschadow has condemned the action. Russian Foreign ministry made a statements that the rebels should be brought to justice.

The United Nations strongly condemned Russia Friday for what its said was Moscow's "disproportionate" use of force in separatist Chechnya and called for "credible criminal investigations" into alleged war crimes by some servicemen.

All the time during the action, press was kept well away from the hotel and they were not even able to get a clear view of what was going on.

Date: April 21st, 2001
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