January 11, 1996
Web posted at: 12:45 a.m. EST (0545 GMT)
From Correspondents Steve Harrigan and Eileen O'Connor
PERVOMAISKY, Russia (CNN) -- There were no signs of a break early Thursday in the standoff between rebels from Chechnya and Russian troops.
Along the Dagestan-Chechnya border, a 3-mile column of Russian armored personnel carriers and tanks surrounded the rebels, who were still holding 160 hostages as human shields as they tried to bargain their way back to Chechnya.
The rebels have threatened to kill the hostages if they are not guaranteed safe passage. Russian authorities say they must first release the hostages.
The band of about 250 rebels, who say they are part of a group called "Lone Wolf," captured 2,000 people in a hospital in the southern Russian town of Kizlyar on Tuesday. At first the rebels demanded the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Chechnya in exchange for the lives of the hostages. Later, they offered to release the hostages in exchange for 11 buses and safe passage back to Chechnya.
Between 30 and 40 people were killed in the raid on Kizlyar, Dagestan, which borders Chechnya. Dozens were reported injured. Three babies were born in the hospital during the hostage ordeal.
The Chechen rebels took 160 people, some of them reportedly volunteers, from the 2,000 hostages at the hospital to use as leverage to get home.
No action appeared to have been taken directly against the hostage takers, but by late Wednesday evening several volleys of Grad missiles could be heard rocketing from Russian positions toward the Chechen border.
The multiple-launch Grad missiles have a range of about 3-5 miles. Their target was unclear.
Chechen leader Dzhokar Dudayev -- who remains in hiding -- appeared on Chechen television Wednesday night, appealing for a peaceful resolution to the situation. He said he was confident the situation could be worked out peacefully if Russian troops do not storm the rebel positions.
His son-in-law, Salman Raduyev, who is the leader of "Lone Wolf," was believed to be in the convoy.
"Alli Ahkbah," or "God is great," the Chechen rebels chanted amid their hostages and journalists. They wanted the world to know that they were sorry for taking women and children hostages, but also say, "This is war. There will be victims."
While Russian military hardware stood along the route back to their breakaway republic, the fighters said that were prepared to die.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin demanded that the rebels release the remaining hostages, saying that things would be bad for them if they do not. He did not elaborate on the statement.
But early Thursday, the rebels appeared to have the upper hand. The question was, would they keep it, as they did last June after a standoff at another southern Russian hospital in Budyonnovsk? In that siege, the rebels escaped after 100 people were killed.
This time, conditions are different, with helicopters and Russian military gathering along the border of Chechnya, and with the Russian government vowing that justice would be done.
But when the crisis is over, it unlikely it will be the last Moscow will hear from Chechens, who demand their independence and have been fighting for it for nearly 13 months. Raduyev said that no matter the outcome, there will be further sieges until Russian troops, who control two-thirds of Chechnya, withdraw.
And some say Yeltsin knows he is in political quicksand. With the upcoming presidential elections, no matter which way he moves in the siege, it seems he will sink.
His attendance at Francois Mitterand's funeral in Paris Wednesday was seen by some as a way of shielding himself from the crisis. "If anything goes wrong he can always say, 'Sorry, I was in Paris, so I could not rule out attack by special forces on this convoy,'" said military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer.
Analysts predict Yeltsin will be blamed for the siege by the newly elected Communist/Nationalist majority in the Parliament. They say the lawmakers will argue that this is yet another demonstration of the inability of the president to control Chechnya.
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