January 24, 1996
Web posted at: 1:45 a.m. EST (0645 GMT)
From Correspondent Brent Sadler
NOVOGROZNY, Russia (CNN) -- Inside the small, rebel-controlled town of Novogrozny, Chechen fighters claim to still hold more than 60 Russian and Dagestani captives. It is the strongest indication yet that the long and violent hostage crisis is not over.
The rebels, and the hostages, are the remainder of a siege that began January 9 when a group of nearly 200 Chechen rebels led by Salman Raduyev stormed an airport in the Dagestani Republic town of Kizlyar in southern Russia. When Russian troops got the best of them, the rebels regrouped and captured a Kizlyar hospital, taking nearly 3,000 hostages. They later released most of the hostages, and made their way aboard buses toward the Chechen border, still holding more than a hundred captives. The convoy was cut off and surrounded by Russian forces in Pervomaiskaya.
After a two-day standoff, Russian forces nearly blasted the tiny town out of existence with GRAD rockets and other heavy weaponry, enraging the residents as well as the hostages.
Russia declared that most of the Chechen rebels had been killed, but it was later learned that Raduyev and some of his men broke through forces surrounding the town and escaped back to the mountains of their separatist republic, taking dozens of hostages with them.
Raduyev and fellow guerrilla commander Shamil Basayev told journalists in the Chechen village of Novogrozny that they would continue terrorist acts until Russia withdraws its troops and recognizes Chechnya's independence, the ITAR-Tass news agency said.
Chechen commanders displayed only a fraction of their claimed catch during a news conference Tuesday. Numbered among the hostages were three Dagestani interior ministry policeman, who accused the Russian army of using them as "cannon powder" in the battle for Pervomaiskaya last week.
The raiders also refused to free 29 Russian power plant workers whom they want to trade for captive rebel fighters. According to ITAR-Tass news, a Russian spokesman said the Chechens had added new conditions to the swap.
The Chechens now admit that they lost 35 fighters in the Pervomaiskaya assault, the heaviest toll of any single battle in their latest bid for independence. They said half of the rebel and hostage casualties occurred as they attempted to escape the village.
"When we made the break," said a hostage, "We went together. The Chechen weren't using us as live shields; they were in the front leading the way out."
If and when the Chechens honor their pledge to release most of their captives, the policemen will not be among them. They have said that non-civilians will only be set free if Moscow agrees to a prisoner exchange.
One of the remaining hostages said he was bitter at Moscow's total disregard for their innocent lives. "Russia betrayed us," he said, "they broke the agreement with the Chechens."
Having cited the execution of all the hostages as justification for launching their deadly assault on Pervomaiskaya, the Russian authorities are now hearing evidence to the contrary -- evidence which could inflict further political damage on President Boris Yeltsin and his field commanders.
Embarrassingly for Russia, rebel leader Raduyev surfaced unscathed, but he was denounced by top Chechen leaders, who said hostage taking has damaged the separatist movement. "This is not a terrorist act", Raduyev calmly said. "It was a combat operation, a routine guerrilla attack."
There now appears to be an open split in Chechen strategy. Many of the top leaders are at serious odds with the guerrilla techniques of popular and charismatic figures like Raduyev and Shamil Basayev.
Basayev's group took hostages at Budyonnovsk last June, also at a southern Russian hospital, and negotiated his way out. He vowed to take more hostages, and to hit Russia where it hurt most.
Copyright © 1996 Cable News Network, Inc.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.