LOD, Israel — Five hijackers who exchanged a busload of hostage Soviet schoolchildren for up to $2 million, a Russian cargo jet and permission to leave the Soviet Union were arrested here Friday after they surrendered to Israeli authorities.
In the hours after a bizarre odyssey ended peacefully at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Friday night, the Israeli government seemed sympathetic to Soviet requests for extradition of the five.
The hijackers, who appeared to be in their 30s, were described as an Armenian couple and three other Soviet citizens. The Israeli government said they are not Jewish and that they had no connection with current ethnic unrest in the Soviet Union.
Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin called them "common criminals," saying they were thieves who had armed themselves with four pistols and a hunting rifle. They matter-of-factly surrendered the weapons and the money minutes after the plane landed here at 5:47 p.m. local time Friday.
"The hijackers were handed over to the police like anyone else who tries to enter the country illegally," said Maj. Gen. Amram Mitzna, commander of troops at the international airport here, which serves both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
It was unclear whether Soviet authorities gave the hijackers part or all of the money in exchange for releasing the children. The hijackers had demanded a plane, a crew and "a large sum of money," according to Soviet officials.
Israeli forces went on full alert, putting Ben-Gurion Airport under military control, to await the arrival of the four-engine Ilyushin-76 of the Soviet state airline Aeroflot.
"Welcome to Israel. Please state the purpose of your business," the Ben-Gurion tower radioed the Soviet plane as it taxied toward a remote military corner of the airfield after landing.
The big jet, a blood-red Soviet flag on its tail, carried the five hijackers and a crew of eight on its flight to Israel from the Soviet city of Mineralnyye Vody, located about 800 miles south of Moscow and a few miles from where the hijacking initially took place.
"The Soviets came to us and asked our permission to land the plane, and to return to the Soviet Union those who have broken Soviet law," Rabin told reporters at the airport here.
Soviet officials said in Moscow that the hijackers did not have a precise destination in mind and had declared they wanted to go either to Israel, South Africa or Pakistan. There was speculation that the Soviets preferred Israel because it offered the best prospects for swift extradition. Both countries are signatories of international conventions against air piracy.
"The hijackers checked out a number of possibilities among themselves, countries in the region. They chose Israel. We still don't know why," Mitzna said.
As the Israeli air force scrambled a jet fighter to escort the Ilyushin through Israeli airspace, officials on the ground, who were uncertain what to expect, pieced together news reports from Moscow with information offered by Soviet consular officials here.
In Moscow, Albert Vlasov, the director of the Soviet news agency Novosti, told a news conference that the drama began Thursday in the southern Soviet city of Ordzhonikidze.
Children Freed Unharmed
"A group of armed bandits hijacked a bus with 30 schoolchildren and a teacher and demanded a plane to deliver them abroad," he said. "In order to save the children and the teacher, a decision was made to give (the hijackers) a plane." The children were released unharmed.
The decision to permit the hijackers to fly out of the country represented a sharp reversal from the fatal shoot-outs that marked the ending of two previous known air piracies in the Soviet Union.
9 Killed Last March
Nine people were killed and 19 were seriously wounded last March after a family musical troupe from Siberia seized an Aeroflot jet. According to published reports, authorities tricked the hijackers into thinking they were landing in Finland but ordered the plane down near Leningrad, then stormed the aircraft. The hijackers then detonated a bomb and destroyed the plane.
In the other incident, five people were killed in September, 1986, when authorities stormed a plane hijacked by internal security forces in the Ural Mountains city of Ufa.
On Friday, the nearly four-hour flight from the Soviet Union to Israel apparently passed without incident.
"The flight was very good. They behaved well," a member of the Ilyushin crew told reporters who were permitted to visit the aircraft Friday evening. Normally, the windowless plane is used as a freighter on internal routes.
Rabin called the hijackers "robbers," although there were no reports to indicate what they might have stolen.
Mitzna, by contrast, said the Soviet officials had provided the plane, the money and some food as part of negotiations for release of the hostages. The general also said he had seen the money, "about 2 million American dollars."
"There was no attempt by the robbers to use any force. They had one rifle and four pistols that were not used," Rabin said.
The portrait that emerged of the hijackers was of unsophisticated people with an uncertain knowledge of geography.
The Ilyushin's flight engineer told reporters: "They only asked if this is Syria or Israel."
" 'If this is Israel, we'll stay,' " they reportedly said.