Five armed Soviets who hijacked a busload of schoolchildren in the Soviet Union and released them in exchange for a plane out of the country surrendered today, clutching sacks of stolen rubles, after landing in Israel with a hostage crew.
The four men and a woman flew to Israel on an Ilyushin-76 cargo plane provided by Soviet authorities after Kremlin leaders relaxed their policy of no mercy for hijackers and allowed them to fly out of the country.
They surrendered to troops and police at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport without resistance shortly after the plane landed.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said the five handed over pistols, a hunting gun and sacks of rubles on being told they were in Israel. Before the plane landed, Israeli authorities believed the hijackers may have been Jews trying to flee the Soviet Union.
Soviet Communist Party sources said the five were believed to be two Russians, two Armenians, and one Ossetian, a member of a small Transcaucasian national minority.
Rabin, who did not indicate whether Israel would return the hijackers, criticized Soviet authorities for giving the bandits an aircraft and flying them to Israel in exchange for the release of 31 kidnaped schoolchildren and teachers.
"How can a superpower like the Soviet Union allow five simple robbers with four pistols and one hunting gun, when the children had already been freed, when not even one hostage was on the plane, to leave the Soviet Union?" he asked.
In Moscow, Albert Vlasov, head of the Soviet news agency Novosti, told reporters: "To save the teachers and children on the bus, a decision was taken to provide a plane to the bandits."
Moscow's decision to allow the five to fly out followed fierce criticism of the handling of the last reported Soviet hijacking in March. Nine people were killed in that incident when Soviet troops stormed a plane commandeered by a family of jazz musicians who were demanding to go to London.
The latest drama ended without a shot being fired 20 minutes after the transport plane, escorted by Israeli fighters, landed on a remote darkened runway. It was surrounded by army and police vehicles and ambulances.
A crew member told reporters in Russian: "They (the robbers) asked whether this was Israel or Syria. They said: 'If this is Israel we will stay.' "
Army Central Commander Maj. Gen. Amram Mitzna said the robbers demanded proof that they were really in the Jewish state. They wanted to hear Yiddish or see a Star of David, he said.
Deplane, Hands in Air
After negotiations with two gunmen and the woman, a soldier on the runway spoke a few words in Yiddish. Then the remaining gunmen left the plane with their hands in the air.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Israel would return the plane and the crew. It would also consider a Soviet request to return the robbers, even though Israel and the Soviet Union have no extradition treaty, he said.
The drama began on Thursday when the assailants hijacked a bus carrying schoolchildren and teachers in the southern Russian city of Ordzhonikidze.
The five traded their hostages for the plane and about 2 million rubles (about $3.3 million) worth of ransom, said Israel's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Shomron.
The bus was taken to the airport in Ordzhonikidze, but the hijackers could not find a big enough plane there so they took the bus and hostages to neighboring Mineralniye Vodi, where they boarded the plane, Tass said.
It was not clear from the report whether the children were taken onto the aircraft and then released, or whether they were freed as the hijackers got onto the plane.