Boris Yeltsin was adamant yesterday that the bombardment of Pervomayskoye was a "well-planned and executed" operation, despite indications that Salman Raduyev - leader of the band of hostage-taking rebels who incurred the Kremlin's wrath - escaped to the hills of Chechnya.
The Russian authorities have admitted they do not know the whereabouts of the red-bearded Raduyev, whose initial raid on the Dagestani town of Kizlyar 12 days ago precipitated a stand-off that ended after the Kremlin ordered the military to flatten nearby Pervomayskoye - where the raiders moved with their hostages.
As contradictory and questionable figures for the numbers of dead and living continued to swirl around - Mr Yeltsin has said that 153 rebels out of a 300-strong group were killed, while 82 hostages escaped or were freed - Russian troops moved in to clear the wrecked village,
Several Chechen separatists, including Aslam Maskhadov, chief of staff to the rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, say Raduyev and some fighters blasted their way through Russian lines and escaped. There were unconfirmed reports that they may still hold some of the hostages from Pervomayskoye.
However, there was no sign that such awkward issues would derail Mr Yeltsin from his view that the assault was an outright success. ''The operation was planned and carried out correctly,'' he said, while praising his two top security officials in charge of the operation. Mikhail Barsukov, head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), and Anatoly Kulikov, the Interior Minister, had ''carried out their missions well'', he said.
The President was doing his utmost to try to salvage the best from the Pervomayskoye affair by vowing to crack down on the separatists. Known ''nests of Chechen terrorism'' would be ''destroyed'' because they ''were stuffed with arms and pose a great threat'', he said. He praised as ''apt'' a remark in a Russian newspaper that ''mad dogs'' - the Chechen rebels - ''should be shot''.
Whether all this rhetoric will do him much good remains doubtful and it seems that he has yet to find the form he will need for June's presidential elections. The conservative constituency he is trying to woo will not have been impressed by the apparent failure of the Russian army to nail Raduyev.Reuse content