MINERAL'NYYE VODY, RUSSIA — A MILITARY helicopter packed with explosives and carrying four masked kidnappers, their five hostages, and $10 million in ransom was ground by heavy fog here yesterday.
On the fourth day of the drama, the kidnappers were demanding a new helicopter, ITAR-Tass news agency reported. It quoted the government's emergency headquarters as saying all the hostages aboard - two teenaged boys, two pilots, and a bus driver - were safe. The gunmen have threatened to kill them unless given safe passage to Iran. One of the gunmen is believed to be a professional pilot capable of flying the aircraft at night.
The camouflage-painted MI-8 helicopter took off from Mineral'nyye Vody at about 1 a.m. local time Saturday, heading for Makhachkala, a Russian town on the Caspian Sea, a police duty officer said. But it returned within two hours because of heavy fog and the danger of icing.
The hostage saga began Dec. 23 when the kidnappers, armed with three automatic rifles and a pistol, seized about a dozen school students in Rostov-on-Don, a river port 600 miles south of Moscow. They herded the hostages onto a bus, then demanded a helicopter and began flying a zig-zag route south toward Iran.
Eight hostages - seven teenaged girls and a teacher - were freed Friday. Two other students were released Saturday in Mineral'nyye Vody, a mineral springs resort 800 miles south of Moscow. The gunmen have promised to free the remaining hostages in Makhachkala, but demanded to take aboard a special foreign ministry envoy, Valentina Petrenko. They said they would free her after refueling in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan.
The gunmen have said they have AIDS and want to go abroad for treatment, but authorities apparently were dismissing that claim. Police say kidnappers often declare they have life-threatening diseases to make people think they have nothing to lose.
It was not clear who the gunmen were, or why they wanted to go to Iran. ITAR-Tass said they were natives of the Caucasus Mountains region. Iran has said it is ready to cooperate with Russia to save the lives of the hostages.