Chechen rebels hijacked a Russian ferry in the Turkish port of Trabzon yesterday and headed out into the Black Sea with 165 hostages on board.
The hijack was the latest blow for Boris Yeltsin as fighting between Russian troops and Chechen rebels in the burned-out village of Pervomayskoye continued unabated and one of the key architects of his economic reform programme, Anatoly Chubais, resigned.
One policeman was injured as six Chechen gunmen seized the Russian ferry, the Avrasaya. Gunfire was heard from the ship, and unconfirmed reports said that one passenger had been killed. A Russian woman who escaped from the ferry said many people had been wounded in the assault.
The gunmen, who are believed to be from the Chechen community in Turkey, threatened to kill one hostage every 10 minutes until the captain, who had been hiding among the 120 passengers and 45 crew on board, agreed to reveal himself and sail out of the harbour. The Turkish authorities made no move to prevent its departure. A guerrilla leader told Turkish TV that the ferry was heading for Istanbul, where it would be blown up in the Bosporus strait if Russia continued the fighting in Pervomayskoye.
Russian troops and Chechen rebels were still engaged in fierce battles in Pervomayskoye, despite Mr Yeltsin's prediction that the fighting would be all over in a day. The onslaught was supposed to have been a quick, if brutal, demonstration to Russians that Mr Yeltsin would not allow his government to be held to ransom, even if it meant jeopardising the lives of scores of hostages. Instead the Kremlin had a continuous reminder that its plans had gone off track.
Demonstrating the political damage to Mr Yeltsin, the Communists said that it would be better if he did not stand for a second term in June and the liberal Yabloko grouping said it would seek a vote of no confidence in the government.
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