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Chechen siege: Embarrassment or triumph?

map of region

Amid smoking ruins, Russians
try to sort out what happened

January 19, 1996
Web posted at: 7:40 p.m. EST (0040 GMT)

From Correspondent Brent Sadler and wire reports

KHASAVYURT, Russia (CNN) -- The ruins of Pervomaiskaya bear witness to the intensity of Russia's four day-long firestorm against the Chechen rebels, which ended Thursday. The mist of gunsmoke lifted Friday to reveal the horrific devastation caused by the standoff: Every house in view a charred shell, and unidentified bodies -- almost all said to be Chechen fighters -- litter the streets.

"For 50 years we've built this village from the basement up. What are we to think now?" wonders a dazed Izrayel Izakov, head of the Pervomaiskaya's Farmers Association.

injured rebel

Dead cattle, some already bloated and putrefying, are strewn on the streets of the village, once home to 1,200 people. Someone's blue and yellow pet parrot lies dead, frozen in the mud.

Russian and Dagestani officials were still attempting to put names to the mutilated corpses, trying to verify accounts of what may or may not have happened.

Counting the dead, recording statements and collecting stockpiles of Chechen weaponry is critical to Moscow's efforts to clear the uncertainty about what truly happened here.

Despite Russia's sledgehammer tactics, the fact that so many hostages survived, and that the Chechens were eventually overcome, may yet help President Yeltsin turn embarrassment into triumph.

Yeltsin was initially critical of the army for letting the Chechen rebels take hostages in the first place, but he is now showing signs of relief, declaring at a news conference Friday that civilian losses were minimal.

The crisis began 11 days ago when rebel leader Salman Raduyev's "Lone Wolf" band took about 70 hostages after a raid on Kizlyar. They took 40 more captives, mostly policemen, at Pervomaiskaya, which is just short of the Chechen border.

The Chechens held off an overwhelming Russian force by seeking refuge in a maze of trenches and behind crude fortifications. Today, surviving captives speak of being forced to live through a terrifying nightmare, created in part by the seeming ineptness of the Russian army.

"We were digging trenches during the daytime, and burying the bodies at night," said one hostage.

Russian commanders, who gave Raduyev five days to dig himself in before beginning their assault, admitted the gunmen were hard to dislodge, even with heavy artillery. The army began bombarding the village Monday, in a desperate attempt to root out the rebels.

carrying an injured person

Residents said no villagers died in the fighting, and Russian officials said they counted 153 Chechen corpses but no dead hostages.

Moscow conceded on Friday that around half the 300 or so rebels, including perhaps Raduyev himself, not only survived the onslaught but managed to cross the Chechen border.

Returning villagers were staggering back to their homes in Pervomaiskaya and elsewhere. At one Russian checkpoint, Dagestani women vented their anger at Russian soldiers and at the Chechen resistance.

Kizlyar locals, furious at being caught in the Russian-Chechen crossfire, demanded weapons to deter possible future sieges by rebels.

So, even as the hostage crisis comes to an end, the analysis of Russia's battlefield performance and Moscow's Chechen policy rages on.

Fired

In what appeared to be a related event, Itar-Tass and Russian NTV Friday announced that Gen. Alexander Mikhailov, spokesperson of the Russian Federal Security Service, was relieved from his position. No further explanation was immediately available.

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