It all ended with a convoy of seven buses, curtains mostly drawn but windows still flashing with the grins of the Chechen gunmen who had blasted their way into this southern Russian town, killed scores, held 1,500 people hostage and yesterday left for home triumphant.
Five days after Chechen guerrillas brought the war in Chechnya into Russia proper, they left their hospital stronghold, escorted towards the Caucasus mountains by three police cars and accompanied by a refrigerated van stuffed with their dead.
Minutes after they had gone, taking with them more than 100 "volunteers" drawn from their captives, a dozen Russian journalists and four parliamentary deputies to guarantee their safety, ambulances and more buses arrived to ferry out the 1,000 hostages left behind.
"It's over. It's over," shouted an elderly woman weeping as she caught sight of her husband. For those travelling with some 74 Chechen fighters, however, another ordeal had just begun.
Russian officials said "volunteers" with the Chechen commander, Shamil Basayev, are supposed to be released once the gunmen are safely inside rebel-held territory in southern Chechnya. Last night, Russian news agencies reported the convoy had crossed into Chechnya.
Two days earlier, Russian troops had tried to dislodge the Chechens from the hospital with a ferocious barrage of firepower. Yesterday, they cleared a path for the buses to pass.
The Chechens agreed to leave after telephone negotiations with Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian Prime Minister, who guaranteed their safe passage.
In less than a week of murderous violence, which began last Wednesday with a rampage which claimed 200 lives, Chechen fighters had succeeded where six months of war in Chechnya had failed. Mr Chernomyrdin has ordered a halt to hostilities in Chechnya and agreed to negotiations to decide the disposition of forces there.
"We never expected to get out alive," said Doctor Anvers Ibragimanov, his green surgeon's uniform scrawled with his name to make identification of his body easier.
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