January 13, 1996
Web posted at: 1 a.m. EST (0600 GMT)
PERVOMAISKY, Russia (CNN) -- Chechen rebels holding more than 100 hostages freed nearly a dozen women and children Friday and said they would release the rest if four Russian officials would take their place.
Surrounded by a solid column of Russian troops in the border town of Pervomaisky, the fighters repeated threats to shoot the hostages unless they were allowed to return to their separatist republic just a few miles away.
But four days after the Chechen siege began at a hospital in Kizlyar, the Russian government was unwavering in its position: The hostages must be released before negotiating begins.
Two Russian officials, top reformers Grigory Yavlinsky and Yegor Gaidar, quickly agreed to the rebel offer of taking the place of hostages. Two others, retired Generals Boris Gromov and Alexander Lebed, both nationalist politicians, refused.
The Kremlin has stepped back from the negotiations, allowing Dagestani officials to conduct the talks with rebels. The war in Chechnya has burdened President Boris Yeltsin for more than a year, and his handling of the hostage crisis could influence his re-election prospects this spring.
Madomedali Magomedov, the Dagestani leader who is conducting the negotiations, said he and Yeltsin discussed the standoff Friday. "He voiced his support for our efforts to save people. We have nothing more precious than human lives," Magomedov said. "But bandits must not go unpunished. We shall be looking for the best option."
The Chechen fighters, who have changed their demands repeatedly since taking the hostages on Tuesday in southern Russia, have also changed the focus of their mission. Initially the rebels attacked an airport in Kizlyar, but when their attempt to destroy it failed, they quickly stormed the hospital there, taking 2,000 people hostage. Nineteen people were killed in the siege.
They then demanded that Moscow withdraw all troops from Chechnya. Russian troops control two-thirds of the breakaway region.
Late Tuesday, the rebels shifted their focus to getting out of Kizlyar alive. They negotiated to release most of their hostages in exchange for 11 buses and two trucks to carry them and their remaining 160 hostages, including Dagestani officials, safely back to Chechnya. They made it as far as Pervomaisky, where they were surrounded by Russian troops.
Talks between rebels and Dagestani officials will resume Saturday morning.
In December 1994, Moscow attempted to put down a three-year independence drive in Chechnya by rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev. His son-in-law, Salman Raduyev, is leading the rebel group called "Lone Wolf" in the Pervomaisky standoff.
Up to 30,000 people have been killed and more than 600,000 uprooted in the clash between Chechnya and Russia.
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