Salman Raduyev, leader of the Chechen hostage-takers who escaped four days of bombardment by Russian forces in Dagestan last week, emerged unscathed in a mountain hideout in Chechnya yesterday and promised to carry on the fight for independence. "The only thing we demand is [that the Russians] leave our republic in peace," he said.
The rebels, who slipped out of the besieged village of Pervomayskoye, have said that in Chechnya today, in the presence of journalists, they will unconditionally release hostages they took with them. If the release goes ahead, in the eastern town of Novogroznensky, it will further embarrass President Boris Yeltsin, who is facing a barrage of criticism for his handling of the crisis in Dagestan, at the end of which 82 out of more than 100 hostages were saved.
Chief among those complaining yesterday was Alexander Lebed, a retired general, standing in June's presidential election, who called the military operation a "national disgrace".
"By American standards, losing 20 per cent of the hostages in an operation is considered unsatisfactory," he said. "By Israeli standards, the loss of one hostage ... is unsatisfactory. It is interesting - what standards operate here?"
Judging by opinion polls, ordinary Russians seemed ready to give Mr Yeltsin the benefit of the doubt last Monday, when he ordered a frontal assault on Pervomayskoye, where the Chechens had stopped with their hostages.
But many now are disillusioned by the obvious lies the Kremlin has been telling. The Federal Security Service (FSB), successor to the KGB, justified the storming of the village by saying the Muslim militants had started shooting their hostages, although witnesses later said this was not true.
Last Wednesday, with some 40 of the hostages freed, the FSB explained the army's use of Grad missiles by saying it was certain there were no more hostages left alive, yet another 40 or so were rescued later.
Yesterday Mr Yeltsin gave his strongest indication that he will seek re-election in June. "Probably, I will agree to run," he told foreign investors at the Kremlin, trying to assure them Russia will stick to free- market reforms. " ... I'll give the final word 13 to 15 February."Reuse content