DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Aug. 17 -- In a rare case of hostage turned kidnapper, seven Russian pilots held captive for more than a year by Afghan Taliban rebels made a 'daredevil' escape and flew to freedom, landing in the United Arab Emirates with three of their captors, officials said Saturday. The seven civilian pilots arrived in the northern emirate of Sharjah at 1600 local time Friday after escaping from the southwestern Afghan city of Kandahar, the bureau chief of the Russian Information Agency in Abu Dhabi told United Press International. In Kandahar, located some 250 miles (400 km) from Kabul, Taliban spokesman Maulavi Wakil Ahmad confirmed in a phone interview with UPI in Islamabad the escape of the pilots and their abduction of three rebels. The Russians escaped while carrying out routine maintenance on their Antonov transport plane at Kandahar airport after the pilots persuaded their guards to allow all seven airmen aboard the plane, he said. 'They overpowered the three Talibans who were inside the plane with them and flew,' Ahmad said. Ahmad said the Taliban high command ordered their own pilots, flying captured Soviet-made MiG fighter planes, to give chase. 'But the first plane got stuck on the runway with flat tires. The second took off soon after and searched for the Russian plane for 45 minutes but could not see it because of bad weather,' he said. Ahmad said the captors often allowed the pilots to conduct maintenance on the aircraft, which the rebel group forced to land at the Kandahar airport in July 1995, claiming the cargo plane was carrying weapons for their enemy, the government in Kabul.
However, during previous maintenance checks the plane never had enough fuel to allow an escape, Ahmad said. Taliban officials have ordered an inquiry to determine how the plane had sufficient fuel to fly the 800 miles (1,280 km) to the Arab Gulf country. Ahmad denied, however, that the Iranian government had cooperated with the Russians or that the pilots had bribed the Taliban guards to escape. 'The pilots identified themselves as a regular flight of the official Afghan airlines and that's how they got through the Iranian air space,' he said after checking with the Iranian officials. 'It was a daredevil attempt to escape and they succeeded,' Ahmad said. In Abu Dhabi, Russian Information Ministry official Igor Kouznetsov said Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Ignatemko was to fly to the United Arab Emirates Sunday to arrange the pilots' repatriation. Kouznetsov said the seven were staying at a Sharjah hotel under police protection, but he had no information about the Taliban guards. He named the pilots as Vladimir Sharpatov, Gazimor Khairullin, Alexander Zeor, Iasat Abbiazov, Yuri Vishivtseu, Sergey Butuzov and Viktor Riazanov. Meanwhile, the Taliban called an emergency meeting of is central consultative council, the Shoora, to discuss the escape and its consequences. The rebel group, which launched its insurgency in late 1994, had ignored several appeals by the United Nations, the Russian government and others to release the pilots. The last person to meet the seven before they escaped was Senator Hank Brown, R-Colo., who talked to them earlier this week. In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, openly backing Marxist forces fighting Islamic factions known as mujahideen. The country then became a Cold War battleground, with the United States and the Soviet Union mainly arming the ensuing civil war. The battle- scarred country is still suffering factional fighting.