Chechen rebels free 8 hostages

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The stand-off between Russian forces and a band of Chechen rebels holed up in a border village in Dagestan eased last night with claims by the authorities that the besieged separatists had released eight hostages - four women, a teen-ager and three small children.

It marked the first breakthrough in the three-day deadlock in which the Chechens and more than 100 of their captives have been surrounded in the village of Pervomayskoye by tanks and heavy artillery of the Russian army.

The rebels had said earlier they were prepared to release 30 women and children in exchange for being guaranteed safe passage into Chechnya. However, it was unclear how many women and children were among the hostages: the Itar-Tass news agency put the number at 26 yesterday before any were released.

The rebels were also said to have offered to release all their hostages on condition that they are accompanied on their journey back to Chechnya by a handful of notable Russian politicians - including Grigory Yavlinsky and General Alexander Lebed, both presidential candidates, and the reformer Yegor Gaidar. Mr Yavlinsky and Mr Gaidar apparently agreed but not General Lebed.

This glimmer of hope - albeit faint - concluded another day of tension in this remote patch of southern Russia, where many are fuming over the Chechens' decision to cross the border of their breakaway republic, enter the Dagestan town of Kizlyar on Tuesday, and corral 2,000 hostages inside a hospital. Yesterday Russian helicopter gunships continued to swoop menacingly over the Chechens and their remaining captives - who include 37 Ministry of Interior policemen - as the Russian Army manoeuvred its tanks and heavy guns around the dead, flat, frozen landscape.

Itar-Tass news agency, quoting the interior minister of Dagestan, reported last night that the rebels had minded the buses on which the hostages were held, in an effort to stop the Russians from opening fire.

The Russians have tightened security around the besieged village after several correspondents, including the Independent's, walked in on Thursday and interviewed Salman Raduyev, the rebels' leader.

In Sovietskoye, the nearest village, an armoured vehicle blocked the road leading to the rebels' stronghold, much to the irritation of about 100 Dagestani men who had assembled at the edge of this potential battleground both out of curiosity and to rail against the rebels.

They were quick to point out that they have played host to tens of thousands of Chechen refugees who have fled from their homeland to this impoverished Russian republic over the past year to escape Chechnya's nasty little war. That Chechens should now be holding their Islamic neighbours hostage is seen here as tantamount to treason.

At the tiny farming village's edge hangs a Soviet-era sign bearing a picture of Lenin. The motif says: "Dearest of all to us is the preservation of peace". If the local people, the Avars, ever believed this sentiment - and in the troubled Caucasus that seems unlikely - then their faith has been shattered.

Yesterday the women and children of Sovietskoye were evacuated on the orders of local elders who feared they could be caught in stray fire from Chechen rebels or Russian guns. They were dispatched to stay with relatives, leaving their men to wander bewildered among the cattle, geese and chickens who rule the muddy lanes. From time to time, deep booms rumbled across the landscape - evidence that the Russians have yet to tire of bombing Chechens over the border.

Nor are the Avars the only ones among Dagestan's jumble of peoples to be damaged by this crisis. Chechens living in Dagestan have condemned the hostage-taking as an act of terrorism. They held a meeting in Khasavyurt, a town 10 miles from the scene of the crisis, and decided to dispatch two bus-loads of Chechen men and women as volunteers to replace the hostages. It is an offer that Mr Raduyev and his men seem certain to refuse, if they are ever offered the opportunity to consider it. The Russians have shown little compunction in attacking Chechen civilians in the past.

"I am 100 per cent certain that if the hostages are Chechens the Russian authorities will utterly destroy them," said Zaidni Abluyev, the editor of Khasavyurt's Chechen-language newspaper.

In Moscow, the spokesman for President Boris Yeltsin, Sergei Medvedev, said the Kremlin leader was being fully briefed.