Chechen rebels deliver hostages to safety

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The Independent Online


Novogroznensky - Chechen rebels yesterday released 42 civilian hostages seized two weeks ago in the raid in the neighbouring region of Dagestan which ended in a bloody showdown with Russian troops.

The hostages, looking tired but glad to be going home, left in a yellow bus from a two-storey school building in the eastern Chechen town of Novogroznensky.

The bus, which followed a convoy of cars with Dagestani officials and religious leaders, wound through a crowd of several hundred Chechens chanting "Allahu Akhbar" (God is greatest). Some people perched on trees to get a better view.

Most of the hostages said they had been well treated by the rebels and some exchanged warm farewells with their captors.

Some had been seized on 9 January, when the rebels herded 2,000 people into a hospital in the Dagestan town of Kizlyar to press their demands for Russian troops to be withdrawn from Chechnya after more than 13 months of conflict there. Others were captured in the village of Pervomayskoye near the Chechnya-Dagestan border, where the convoy of rebels and hostages was blocked and surrounded by Russian troops.

The Chechens are still holding some police commandos who were seized outside Pervomayskoye. They want to exchange them for rebels captured by the Russian forces.

The village was almost totally destroyed when the Russian troops stormed it. But a group of rebels broke out of the besieged village, through Russian lines, and took some of their hostages with them.

"They were good to us. We had no problems. It was like brother to brother. A new life began for us after we sat for three days under the bombing in Pervomayskoye," said Ruslan Magomedov, 23, a businessman from Kizlyar.

Another hostage, Anatoly Zdebsky, 25, said he was happy to be going back to his family and bore no grudges against the Chechens. "They kept us in various homes, looked after us and fed us well," he said.

The buses crossed the Chechnya-Dagestan border at about 5pm Moscow time in the direction of the Dagestani town of Khasavyurt, reported Tass news agency.

Before the release there was a meeting in the school attended by the Dagestani delegation and Chechen rebel leaders including the commander in chief, Aslan Maskhadov. Salman Raduyev, who led the rebel raid in Dagestan, was also there. A member of the Dagestani parliament, Gadji Makhachev, told the meeting that the group to be released were not really hostages. "These lads saved their lives," he said, referring to the fact that the rebels had taken them out of Pervomayskoye during the attack by the Russian forces. "The Chechens said we could take our people home. They are our neighbours."

Mr Maskhadov told the audience that the rebels were not bandits. "We are not terrorists. We condemn terrorism and banditry." he said.

n Moscow - Six Russian soldiers were killed and two wounded in attacks by separatist rebels on Russian positions in Chechnya in the 24 hours up to yesterday afternoon. Interfax news agency reported that "illegal armed bands" had made 19 attacks in all, 13 of them in the capital Grozny.