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Armed men take hostages at Turkish hotel

Armed men take hostages at Turkish hotel

A group of armed men forced their way in to a luxury hotel in Istanbul on Monday and took guests and staff hostage in a protest against Russian military action in Chechnya, the state-run Anatolian news agency said.

The agency said the group, armed with pump-action shotguns and automatic rifles, had forced staff of the Swissotel in Istanbul to lie down in the lobby and demanded to speak to Turkish Interior Minister Saadettin Tantan.

"We have learned that some of the guests at the hotel are being held. They (the attackers) say they are Chechen," the agency quoted Istanbul police chief Kazim Abanoz as saying.

He said the group had claimed to be 20-25 strong.

A Belgian man visiting guests in hotel told Reuters: "I came into the lobby...then there were two or three men who rushed in. They were dressed in black and there were shots. I ran out immediately and when I was standing in the garden I heard more shots."

Ambulances and a heavy police presence waited near the hotel but there were no reports of any injuries from the gunfire and the hotel and surroundings were quiet.

Television pictures taken from outside the hotel showed at least one armed man patrolling the lobby and people who appeared to guests walking with their arms raised in the air.

Witnesses outside the hotel saw two groups of a total of ten guests leave the main entrance. They were met by members of a heavy police cordon that surrounded the hotel complex and driven away. Anatolian said the attackers had gathered hostages in a conference hall on the fifth floor of the main block.

Armed and masked special force officers were at the scene and other policemen waited in buses parked nearby.

NATIONALITIES AND NUMBERS UNCLEAR

An employee of the U.S. consulate at the site declined to comment on the numbers or nationality of the guest at the hotel, a complex of hotel and residential blocks which overlooks the Bosphorus straits running through Istanbul.

Anatolian cited reports that the group was linked to pro-Chechen gunmen who hijacked a Russian ferry in the Black Sea in 1996. Turkey has a history of pro-Chechen attacks and sympathy for the Chechen separatist cause runs high in the country. The attack came just before a national holiday in Turkey.

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 1996 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 hijackers surrendered to authorities peacefully in Istanbul.

Last month, another group of hijackers demanding an end to the war in Chechnya seized a Russian airliner en route from Istanbul to Moscow and forced it to fly to Saudi Arabia.

Some 170 Russian and Turkish hostages were freed after Saudi commandos stormed the plane in Medina, but a flight attendant and one hijacker were killed in the raid.

The aircraft hijacking appeared to be a family operation by one Chechen and his two teenaged sons.

The United Nations on Friday strongly condemned Russia for its "disproportionate" use of force in separatist Chechnya and called for "credible criminal investigations" into alleged war crimes by some servicemen. (Additional reporting by Osman Senkul).


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