By Phillip Null
On a chilly January day at approximately 2000 (local), 188 passengers boarded the MV Avrasaya, a 3,383–ton, Panama-flagged ferry, in the Black Sea port of Trabzon, Turkey, for a 12-hour voyage to Sochi, Russia. After the passengers were onboard, a group of gunmen wearing ski masks boarded from the ship's stern ramp and made their way to the bridge and passenger decks.
As they ascended the stairs to the main deck, a port security supervisor confronted them and fired two rounds from his sidearm. The shots missed their target before the weapon reportedly malfunctioned. The gunmen returned fire, wounding the security officer in the foot before disarming and binding him. The men then continued their effort to take the ship, ultimately seizing the bridge and taking all passengers and 45 crew members hostages. Witnesses on shore and a Russian passenger who escaped the ferry at the onset of the attack reported the incident to authorities and stated gunfire had been heard on board. The escaped passenger said many passengers had been wounded in the assault and she described the gunmen as numbering half a dozen males who spoke Turkish.
On the ship the gunmen closed the boarding gate before collecting the hostages' passports and identifying the nationality of each: 144 Russians, 44 Turks, and 45 Crewmen of undisclosed nationality.
The captain was not found on the bridge by the gunmen during their assault, but believing he was on board, the hostages were corralled onto the mess deck and an ultimatum was issued. One hostage would be killed every 10 minutes until the captain presented himself and agreed to sail from the port. The captain quickly stepped forward and soon after the vessel was underway. Turkish authorities appear to have made no attempt to prevent its departure.
As the ship pulled away from the dock, the group's leader, identified only as Mohammed, contacted Turkish State Television via telephone and identified himself and 50 other hijackers on board as Chechen resistance fighters. He also outlined the attackers' demands, stating the ferry was being diverted 650 nautical miles to Istanbul, Turkey, and demanding safe passage in addition to the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya, an end to Russian hostilities against Chechen separatists in Pervomayskoye, and the safe return to their country of a Chechen militia group holding hostages in Dagestan. If those demands were not met, he stated the group was prepared to kill all Russian passengers and, after freeing the Muslims, blow up the ship.
The following morning, Wednesday, January 17, 1996, Turkish Navy and Coast Guard vessels began shadowing the ship and authorities established communication with the hijackers on VHF radio where negotiations were conducted. In early conversations, the men indicated they would release 30 Turkish hostages if allowed to proceed Unhindered into Istanbul. The Turkish government had severe concerns about this route, however, because it would necessitate a transit through the Bosporus Strait, the waterway connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.
As negotiations were ongoing, Turkish State Television continued to speak with the terrorists and in one case was permitted to speak with the ship's captain, Mustafa Tuncay, who said no one had been hurt since the ferry was seized. In a separate radio interview with Anatolia News, Mohammed was quoted as saying, "The reason why we have commandeered this ship is very simple. I do not know what the world is thinking, but what we are after is saving our homeland, living with our own culture... And we do not think there is a force which can prevent that, because, our only choice is between freedom and death. This struggle will go on until the Russians withdraw and a confederation of Caucasus peoples is established."
On Thursday, January 18, the ferry stopped outside the Bosphorus and a three-man delegation of the Caucasia- Abhazia Solidarity Committee and Turkish State Television were permitted to board the ferry from a small boat to assist with negotiations. A reporter commented on the scene in published articles, saying the Russian passengers were very "scared and nervous" with some crying, and described the terrorists as "heavily armed with TNT sticks strapped to their bodies." He reported that he "never got the sense they were bluffing."
The delegation brought news that Turkish Interior Minister Teoman Unusan would not allow the ship to transit the Bosporus Strait, citing international law. The terrorists' immediate reaction was to again threaten to blow up the ship and to demand the withdrawal of surrounding warships. One gunman was quoted as saying, "We are like dynamite ready to explode. We will, with the help of Allah, enter the Bosphorus. We have no alternative." The gunmen also requested food, fuel, and clean water. As Turkey continued its negotiation tactic, Russian President Boris Yeltsin vocally argued that Turkey was delaying a solution to the hijacking and stated that Russian forces, including two destroyers, a hospital ship, and 150 special operations troops, were staged at the Ukranian port of Sevastopol for a rescue operation.
The delegation remained on board until Friday, January 19, when it departed via a small boat with eight sick passengers released by the terrorists. At 1200 local The ferry arrived at the approaches to the Bosphorus and throughout the morning made several attempts to enter, but her path was blocked each time by warships from the Turkish Navy and Coast Guard. During the standoff, Semsettin Yusuf, a senior Chechen secessionist and minister of foreign affairs for the self-declared Chechen Republic, was Delivered via helicopter to the ferry to act as an intermediary. Yusuf was able to quickly persuade the hijackers that they had succeeded in winning the world's attention and could achieve nothing positive by carrying out their violent threats, informing them Russian forces had already routed the rebels in Pervomayskoye.
Following these talks, the terrorists agreed to abort their attempts to enter Bosphorus and instead anchored in a cove at Sogan Island, with their leader saying, "We have stopped, we have no intention of doing anything now." At 1730 local four hijackers threw their weapons into the sea before Turkish Coast Guard officers boarded the ferry and removed them from the ship. Thirteen passengers, all suffering from illness or injury, were also removed and brought to a nearby hospital. Naval officers remaining on the ferry then ordered the ship's captain to proceed with the remaining passengers to the port of Eregli. Throughout the crisis, authorities were unable to determine the actual number of terrorists onboard, but were aware of at least six, and commenced a search for the remaining men, who tried to hide amongst the passengers without success. Seven men, five Turks and two Chechens, were eventually identified as the perpetrators of the attack and taken into custody by Turkish forces, including one who hid inside the ship's smokestack.
Turkish authorities later found through interrogation of the terrorists that prior to deciding to hijack the ferry they considered blowing up one of the two suspension bridges over the Bosphorus with explosives to block the strait to traffic.
The leader of the militants, Mohammed Tokcan, escaped from the prison in Dalaman on October 6, 1997.
Tokcan was arrested again at Atatürk Airport in Istanbul on April 29, 1999, when he tried to flee to Kosovo under a false passport. He was paroled as part of a general amnesty of prisoners on December 22, 2000. On April 22, 2001, just before midnight, a group of 12 militants led by Tokcan seized the Swiss hotel in Istanbul and took hostages to draw attention to the new war in Chechnya, demanding the United States use its influence to denounce the Russian war. The crisis ended again without bloodshed when all gunmen surrendered after 12 hours. On December 30, 2002, Mohammed Tokcan was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Hostage taking has long been a prolific tactic. Recent years may have seen this Tactic eclipsed in terrorist campaigns by other violent acts, but as long as this technique has the possibility of creating gains for its practitioners (as evidenced by the resurgence in international maritime piracy and al-Qaeda training to seize hostages, obtain media attention and execute them), it will continue to be practiced.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mr. Null is a deployable U.S. Coast Guard team leader. He currently serves with the Maritime Safety and Security Team in Miami, Florida. He is responsible for training and qualifying USCG personnel in law enforcement, port security, advanced boat tactics, and CBRN-E skills.
1 Hijacked Ship Creeps toward Istanbul, The Independent, January 18, 1996
2 Rebels Grab 165 on Ferry, New York Daily News, January 17, 1996
4 Negotiators on Board Hijacked Ferry, The Hour, January 19, 1996
3 Chechen Crisis Deepens, Daily Mail, January 1996
5 Hostage Takers Surrender Ferry, Irish Times, January 19, 1996
6 Istanbul's Gang Leader, BBC News, April 23, 2001