by Wayne P. Sampson

The following is the true story of one of the bloodiest hijackings and hostage rescues in history.  It is the story of the hijacking of an Aeroflot Tupolev 134A, and the hostage rescue by the KGB “Alpha Team” anti-terrorist unit.

November 18, 1983, Moscow

November was the worst month in Moscow.  The days were already short and cold, with the sun setting early over a city that was leafless, dark and muddy, hungering for the first snowfall that would give it winter life.

For Vladimir Zaitsev, the event that would propel him to the senior echelons of  the leadership of the KGB’s elite “Group Alpha” anti-terrorist squad was about to occur.

He heard it first from the Alphas commanding officer, General Gennady Zaitsev, who delivered the news, ashen-faced, without preamble:

“At 16 hours, 16 minutes,  a group of armed men hijacked an Aeroflot Tu-134 on the route Tbilisi – Batumi – Kiev – Leningrad. There were 57 passengers and 7 crew members. The hijacker’s have killed the flight engineer and another crew member.  They demanded to be flown to Turkey, but the pilot returned to Tbilisi. Currently, the liner is on one of the runways of the airport there.  A bus is on its way here to take us to the airport. “

Tupolev 134aThe Alpha team arrived at Tblisi airport at around midnight. It looked to Zaitsev like the entire Georgian KGB was there to meet them.  The committeemen helped unload the gear the team had brought — a broad spectrum including rifles, pistols, sniper rifles, bulletproof vests, helmets, radios, pyrotechnics, and supply bags with equipment for every contingency.

In a briefing, the Georgian KGB shared what they knew.

A group of armed Georgian separatists broke into the cockpit during the flight. They shot the flight engineer, killing him, and wounded the deputy chief flight navigator. They then  demanded the plane change course and land in Turkey. They had gotten the weapons on board by posing as a wedding party and convincing an airport employee to let they board as VIPs, from the “Parliament” gate, thereby bypassing security checks.

The “newlyweds” were Soso Tsereteli, an actor,  and his wife,  Tinatin, an artist.  The other hijackers were Paata Iverieli, a doctor; his brother Kahi Iverieli, a resident at the Department of Surgery at the Hospital of Tbilisi Medical Institute; Hecha Kobakhidze, no fixed occupation, twice previously convicted of hooliganism; Gia T. Tabidze, an artist; and David Mikaberidze, a student.

On board, as soon as they were at cruising at altitude, Tabidze and the Iverieli grabbed stewardess Valentine Krutikova and, using her as a shield,  broke into the cockpit. Screaming, they demanded to be flown to Turkey.

Flight mechanic Anzor Chediya tried to explain: “We can’t reach Turkey. We don’t have the range.”  Tabidze fired a fatal shot at close range, killing Chediva.  A second bullet pierced the neck of deputy chief flight navigator Zaven Shabartyanu who was flying in the cockpit.  The flight’s navigator, Vladimir Gasoyan, grabbed one of the staff weapons and returned fire from the cockpit.

Tabidze was hit, and fell to the floor, writhing in agony. One of the Iverieli brothers rushed to the back of the plane, where chaos was quickly breaking out.

The pilot, Ahmatger Gardapkhadze, immediately began flight acrobatics to hinder the hijackers, doing banks and rolls that tossed the terrorists — and quite a few of the passengers — about the cabin.  While this was happening, Gardapkhadze managed to slam shut the armored cockpit door, effectively sealing off the cockpit from the cabin.

Despite a bullet wound in his leg, the captain landed the plane at the airport in Tbilisi. As the plane was rolling down the runway, passengers and flight attendants started opening emergency exits. The terrorists shot one flight attendant and killed her; others got out.

On board, seeing that the flight had landed in Tbilisi, not Turkey, the youngest of the terrorists,  Mikaberidze the student, stood up and shot himself.

Now the aircraft sat at the end of the runway, surrounded by soldiers, border guards — none of them remotely prepared to deal with a situation such as this.

*     *     *     *     *

It had turned into one of the bloodiest and most chaotic hijackings in the history of aviation. Learning about it, KGB officer Vladimir Zaitsev was astonished at the desperate intensity of it all — a bizarre craziness that had left behind a gut-wrenching nervousness that seemed to permeate the very air of the airport.

The hijackers threatened reprisals against the passengers  and continued to demand that the aircraft depart forthwith from the USSR. However, by this time the aircraft was damaged to the point that it could not fly — a salient detail which the hijackers rejected, insisting that it take off. They refused to even contemplate transferring to another aircraft.

Finally, the hijackers agreed to allow a negotiator to come on board, with the condition that the negotiator strip naked and stop 50 meters from the plane. Zaitsev volunteered for the “striptease” duty, and within minutes was naked on the runway, but before negotiations could start,  the door to the aircraft flew open. A disheveled woman standing in the doorway began to scream hysterically:

“Stay away! Do not come!”

The hijackers had taken the woman’s two year old daughter, and threatened to kill her if they sensed a “fraud” in the negotiations. Then another woman pushed past her and jumped, then ran away from the aircraft, toward Zaitsev, dodging bullets all the way.

The hijackers now categorically refused to conduct any further negotiations, insisting instead that clearance be granted for the flight to take off for Turkey.

His “striptease” having failed, Zaitsev retreated and got back into his gear while the chief prosecutor of the Georgian Republic came out onto the icy tarmac and — dressed in a bulletproof vest and trembling with fear — began to read articles of the Soviet Criminal Code.

It did not help.

On the contrary, realizing that they had nothing to lose, the hijackers threatened to start shooting hostages if the plane was not sent across the border immediately.

Finally,  the decision was made to storm the aircraft.

Zaitsev was assigned to lead the assault team. The plan was to enter through the cockpit.  A second assault group was headed by Michael Holovaty, a third by Vladimir Zabrodin.

To assist him, Zaitsev chose Vitali Seregin and Vladimir Demidkin, two of the smallest men in the Alpha group.  He chose them because their route onto the plane through the tiny cockpit hatch demanded above all the flexibility and agility.

The prosecutor of the Georgian Republic, having unsuccessfully attempted to intimidate the criminals with the articles of the Criminal Code, sanctioned the physical destruction of the terrorists. But he was overruled by the KGB leadership who — mindful of the political implications of the Russian KGB killing terrorists — determined that the Alphas would be limited to guns with plastic bullets in the clip — bullets that would injure, but not kill.

As they prepared the assault, the situation in the plane had, it seemed, reached a climax. The hysterically screaming woman whose child was in the hands of the hijackers, had now been joined by a chorus of screaming voices.

Meanwhile, a criminal investigator, who was a passenger on the plane, managed to jump onto the runway and escape. He provided the first good information on the hijackers’ armaments.  He told the Alphas that there were two hijackers sitting at the end of the first salon that were holding an army type grenade launcher.  Judging by the description, Zaitsev thought it was probably a “RGD-5, which if fired in the crush of the cabin could create bloody mayhem. The investigator said all the other hijackers were carrying automatic weapons.

Zaitsev and the assault team made their way underneath the belly of the aircraft, and waited.

It was then, as he waited for the signal, that he began to think about his wife and son, and realized that if he was not lucky today, his son would be without a father.

Alpha 2He pushed the thought away and concentrated on the task. To penetrate the cockpit, his two smaller team members would have to get through first, and then pull Zaitsev through the aperture. Once inside, Zaitsev would take the lead and go first into the passenger cabin, followed by Demidkin, then Seryogin.  Zaitsev’s whispered orders were clear — if he took a bullet or a fragment, they were to not pay attention to him, but push past, running straight over him to neutralize the hijackers.

Working quietly, Zaitsev’s team managed, with great difficulty and only after shedding their body armor, to get into the cockpit.

In the cockpit, it was pitch dark.

His hands touched something cold and unpleasant. A corpse. Most likely, the flight mechanic. He dragged the body to the side.

The pilot heard them, regained consciousness, and in a feverish whisper begged them not to open the door to the cockpit, fearing they would all be killed.

Zaitsev ignored him.

Unlocking the armored door to the cabin, he opened it a crack, then closed it again. He made sure everyone was in position behind him, then radioed the commander:

“The cockpit group is in position. Ready to proceed.”

Long minutes passed.

Then, finally, the command came:

“Assault!”

Zaitsev took a deep breath, then made a sharp push on the door, but it was jammed.  It would not open. Something was preventing it. He slammed into the door again and again. The corpse of a terrorist was blocking it.

He finally got the door open, pushing the corpse aside, and launched into the darkened cabin, tripping over a second corpse — the youngest terrorist who had shot himself when he realized they were on the ground in Tbilisi, not Turkey.

The attack unfolded with frightening quickness. Stun grenades were thrown into the interior. Passengers and terrorists screamed.

Zaitsev and his men were well coached to act instantly in such an environment, taking advantage of the effect of the grenades.

In the aisle, they found themselves facing a large man.  Passenger or hijacker?  Zaitsev attacked him hand-to hand and immediately realized, based on his lack of response, that he was a passenger.

He brushed him aside, ordering him out the open hatch. The man jumped — only to be taken for a hijacker by the Georgia police and security services.  Fortunately, Alpha support members on the ground were able to grab him before disaster occurred.

Next, Zaitsev encountered a screaming woman, shouting:

“Do not come! They will explode the plane! Do not come!”

He grabbed her and pushed her out an open hatch.

Meanwhile, Zaitsev and his men were calling out:

“Down! Everybody down! Put your hands behind your head!”

Passengers huddled under their seats. The hijackers were firing shots the cockpit, toward Zaitsev and his team, but no one was hit. Meanwhile, a second team was advancing from the rear.

Zaitsev tackled a hijacker, overpowered him and snapped the cuffs on.

By this time, they were met by the second and third assault teams, who had captured two hijackers in the back of the plane.

But by Zaitsev’s math, one hijacker was missing.

He bellowed: “Nobody move! Hands behind your head.”  He shined his flashlight around. The beam found a person lying unconscious on the floor. The man’s eyelids fluttered, but he lay there motionless.

Zaitsev stood over him and gave orders to shoot if the body at his feet stirred.

The man immediately opened his eyes, raised his hands, and yelled that he was not a “major terrorist” — that the main ones were in the next cabin. He was quickly handcuffed and with the other hijackers, dragged out of the plane.

Alpha group arrestThen they began evacuating the passengers.

Storming the plane, and evacuating the passengers took a total of 8 minutes.

All of the hijackers were taken alive — four men and one woman. From the hijackers, the Alphas seized various pistols and revolvers, two RGD-1, and one F-1 grenade launcher.

In a final irony, Zaitsev found that the grenades carried by the hijackers were training grenades only.

Whoever had sold them to the terrorists had done Zaitsev and his men a favor.

 

Original Russian Language Source Material:

Russian: Crowned by Death Part 1

Russian: Crowned by Death Part 2

 

 

One Response to The Bloodiest Hijacking and Rescue Operation Ever?

  1. George says:

    Please get your facts right before writing an article. First of all, the newly weds were not Tinatin and Soso but Tinatin and Gega (whom you referred to as “Hecha” for some reason). Secondly, it was not Gega who had no occupancy and 2 prior convictions but Gia Tabidze. Gega Kobakhidze was a famous actor, well know throughout Georgia. He starred as Tornike in acclaimed Repentance by Tengiz Abuladze but after the incident with the aircraft his parts were removed from the film and shot again using another actor. You also failed to mention that Zaicev’s team started to shoot at the aircraft from the outside, once it landed, causing several people’s death (which was later blamed on the hijackers).

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