Chechen rebels holding more than 100 hostages in a border village were given another night to "reconsider their position", after defying calls to give up yesterday.
As President Boris Yeltsin sent two of his top security officials to Dagestan in an effort to end the five-day confrontation between the Russian army and the rebels at the village of Pervomayskoye, a matter of yards from the border with Chechnya, the Interior Ministry announced that a brief breathing-space had been agreed by local officials in their talks with the Muslim fighters. However, rebel snipers fired on the Russian forces surrounding them, wounding up to four, according to Russian officials. They insisted that their troops did not fire back
General Mikhail Barsukov, head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Interior Minister, Anatole Kulikov, took charge of the Russian attempts to negotiate after the Chechens failed to respond to a Kremlin ultimatum to hand over their captives and surrender by 10am yesterday.
The Chechen leader, Salman Raduyev, 28, ignored Russian threats that troops would be ordered to attack the village, where the rebels have been cornered since Wednesday.
As the deadline approached, the formidable array of forces surrounding the farming hamlet was strengthened still further with the arrival of about 300 Ministry of Interior special troops, accompanied by a group of snipers with high-powered rifles slung over their shoulders. But when it passed with no end to the deadlock, the Russians withdrew the men, generally scaled down their military activity and softened their tone, despite earlier comments making clear that they were no longer willing to strike a deal in which the rebels walked free.
Alexander Mikhailov, an FSB spokesman who earlier this week had called for the "annihilation of the bandits", struck a more conciliatory note here yesterday, saying that every effort ought to be made to resolve the crisis without any unnecessary loss of life.
The stand-off began six days ago as the Chechen fighters were retreating from north Dagestan, where they had taken over a hospital in Kizlyar and seized 2,000 hostages, in an effort to force the Russians to withdraw their troops from Chechnya.
They sought refuge in Pervomayskoye after being fired on by Russian helicopters as they crossed the Chechen border, an act which they saw as a breach of an agreement that they would have safe passage back to their break- away republic.
As the Kremlin seeks to extract itself from the politically damaging crisis, at times it has engaged in military posturing of operatic proportions.
On Saturday night the Russians fired clusters of high-altitude flares above the village, which floated down through the clouds, filling the heavens with a sickly, apricot-coloured glow.
Small red, green and orange flares occasionally arched low over the fields, illuminating the dark silhouette of the Russian war machine and the distant peasant smallholdings which Mr Raduyev and his men had made their lair.
In Sovietskoye, the nearest village, the few Dagestani men who have not left gathered in a knot at the Russian roadblock on the lane leading to Pervomayskoye, watched by scowling Russian soldiers.
Some of the onlookers perched on haystacks, straining for a view of what might have been Guy Fawkes night, were its purpose not so grim and potentially bloody.
Meanwhile, overhead day and night there is the constant drone of MI-24 helicopter gunships, which swoop so low that you half expect their rocket- packed bellies to catch on the powerlines.
This operation is all about pressure. The Russian commanders hope that if the nocturnal bangs and flashes do not disorientate and disturb the rebels, who are well used to Russian military tactics, then they will at least unsettle the hostages, and make them intensify pressure on the captors for their release.
The weaponry assembled here has as much to do with intimidation as it has with battle requirements. There are T-72 tanks with 120mm guns, BMT armoured vehicles, Spetznatz special forces and commandos from the anti- terrorist forces squad. Much of this army is constantly on the move, prowling menacingly around the fields.
The Russians also appear to have started disseminating black propaganda. The FSB, a spin-off from the dismantled KGB, yesterday sought to persuade the international press corps that the Russians had heard women in the village screaming at night.
Another report, again circulated by the FSB, said that Russian military intelligence had intercepted a radio conversation in which the Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, was heard to tell Mr Raduyev that he should be willing to let his women hostages die.
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