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Bloody Hijacking Staged by Soviet Family of Musicians

March 11, 1988|CHARLES T. POWERS | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — The bloody airline hijacking attempt that left at least nine people dead and 20 wounded was staged by 11 members of a musical Siberian family, the Soviet government newspaper Izvestia said Thursday in an unusually detailed report on such an event.

Among the hijackers was a jazz band made up of seven brothers, famous in their hometown of Irkutsk as "the Seven Simeons," and their mother. Apparently planning to defect to the West, they had boarded the flight Tuesday in the southern Siberian city of Irkutsk, carrying their musical instruments as well as concealed shotguns and explosives.

The flight ended hours later in a blood bath at a military airfield near Leningrad, when Soviet troops stormed the plane and a gun battle broke out. Five members of the family were killed. In addition, three passengers and a flight attendant were killed, some of them when the hijackers' explosives were detonated by a fire that was started by the shooting.

During the shoot-out, the newspaper said, one of the sons turned his gun on his mother, who held the government-awarded title of "Hero Mother" for having reared 10 children, and shot her in despair. Two of the brothers then shot themselves.

In its initial report on the incident Wednesday, the official Soviet news agency Tass provided few details, describing the hijackers as "armed criminals" and citing the deaths of the flight attendant and three passengers along with the killing of an unspecified number of hijackers.

On Thursday, however, the Soviet media, apparently guided by Kremlin leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's glasnost (openness) policy, put out an unprecedented series of reports on the incident. Deputy Civil Aviation Minister Ivan F. Vasin told Izvestia that the hijacking was the most dramatic he could recall in his long career. And Tass described Ninel Ovechkin, the mother, as "a plump, fashionably dressed woman of over 50" and quoted eyewitnesses as identifying her and two of her sons, Vasily and Oleg, as "leaders among the criminal team," the Associated Press reported.

Highly Regarded

The family, the Ovechkins, were well known and highly regarded in Irkutsk, Izvestia said. This may explain how they were able to board the plane at the small airport with their concealed weapons.

The newspaper's report from Irkutsk said the community was stunned by the news. It quoted neighbors as saying that over the previous several days, the Ovechkins had been quietly selling the family furniture.

The band, which was frequently hired by city officials to play at civic events, had canceled a performance scheduled for Tuesday in the city's House of Culture.

The seven brothers had recently returned from a visit to Japan, but there was nothing in the accounts given to Izvestia to suggest that the Ovechkins were in any way disenchanted with their lives in the Soviet Union.

They boarded the plane, a TU-154, at Irkutsk, bearing luggage and musical instrument cases, with several small children in tow. Including the Ovechkins, there were 76 passengers, along with a four-man flight crew and three attendants.

The flight was headed for Leningrad. After a scheduled stop at Kurgan, east of the Urals, the hijacking began to unfold, according to witnesses quoted by Izvestia.

Wielding sawed-off shotguns and warning that a bomb was aboard, the brothers demanded to be flown to "a capitalist country, to London," passengers told the newspaper.

Refueling Need Cited

The flight's route was to the northwest, and the crew convinced the Ovechkins that the plane needed refueling and would have to land at the Finnish city of Kotka, safely clear of the Soviet border.

As the plane touched down, however, the hijackers could see Soviet soldiers advancing toward it and realized that they were not in Finland. At that point, according to Izvestia, the Ovechkins began shooting.

One of the first victims was an attendant, Tamara Zharkaya. She was the crew member who had persuaded the Ovechkins to permit the refueling.

Izvestia said five members of the military assault team tried to board the plane but, with two of them wounded in a furious exchange of gunfire, were forced to retreat.

A few minutes later, an explosion at the rear of the plane brought more terror and panic. The passengers fought to get to the plane's escape hatch. As the passengers were struggling to get out of the plane, the assault team was trying to break in, their guns blazing.

It was in the midst of this fury, the passengers said, that two of the brothers killed their mother and then themselves.

Hiding in a Car

Izvestia said one of the brothers, Igor, managed to get off the plane with three small children. They were caught hiding in a car on the airfield.

Another brother apparently died in the explosion on the plane, the newspaper said, not mentioning how the fifth family member might have died. The paper also did not make clear what happened to the surviving members of the family, although they are believed to have been captured.

Tass said that 20 of the passengers had been hospitalized but gave no details on injuries among the assault team. Neither the news agency nor the newspaper identified the small children with the family.

Usually Violent

The account in Izvestia suggested that the military may have bungled the attack since it resulted in so many injuries, but hijackings in the Soviet Union usually end in violence. Of about 40 hijackings on record since the 1950s, 34 have ended in violence. The other six ended outside the country.

One of the worst was in 1983, in Tbilisi, when soldiers stormed a plane and 10 persons were killed. The official who gave the order to attack the plane was Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who was then head of the Communist Party in the Georgian republic. He is now foreign minister of the Soviet Union.

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