Chechens threaten to kill hospital hostages

Andrew Higgins reports from Budennovsk, where 500 terrified Russians wait to hear whether they will live or die
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It feels like a town ravaged by some terrible unfathomable plague, a town of shuttered windows, wailing grief on near-deserted streets and contagious fear of venturing too close to the hospital. For it is there, inside a three-storey brick building surrounded by overgrown grass and rustling trees, that more than 500 people wait to hear whether they will live or die.

What threatens them is not disease, though some 200 of them are indeed sick, but the terrible crazed passions of what, until it arrived on their doorstep out of the blue at lunchtime on Wednesday, seemed a distant, almost foreign war.

Chechnya lies more than a 100 miles from here across fields of wheat and rolling hills; the battlefields of Russia's six-month war there are farther away still. Yesterday, though, the front line was here, the skies filled with the din of helicopters and Sukhoi-25 fighters overhead, streets filled with Russian soldiers with pirate-like headbands and huge guns. But not even they go near the hospital where a desperate band of Chechen rebels holds hundreds of hostages.

Alexander Knygi, a 13-year-old schoolboy immensely proud of his new trainers, had just sat down to a lunch of pea soup when the Chechen war moved on to the street outside the kitchen window. His mother thought it was a gas explosion. A glance through the lace curtains told them what was really happening. A few yards away on the pavement next to a grass verge planted with potatoes stood a line of about two dozen men, armed and all firing madly at the building across the road. They shouted at each other in a language few others could understand, but there was no doubt about their intent.

"Their eyes were blazing like drug addicts," said Alexander's mother, Rima. "They just stood there shooting. They were not afraid of anything. It was the first time I had seen real gunfire. I was shaking all evening."

On a normal day their home at No 63 Stavropolskaya Street was perhaps the safest place in Budennovsk. Across the road stands the local police headquarters. On Wednesday, just before noon, it became a combat zone, the start of a nightmare being played out at the Central District Hospital housed in a former monastery on the north side of town.

After blasting the police station, leaving at least six corpses, the Chechens seized everyone left alive they could find and herded them down the street toward Lenin Square. Among those killed was Sergei Ilyushenko, a 34-year-old deputy police chief. His weeping widow yesterday came to collect his belongings - a dirty police cap, his favourite cassette from his patrol car, and half-empty packet of cigarettes. His body awaits collection, along with those of more than 70 others killed, in a public bathhouse converted into an emergency morgue.

What happened at the police station would be repeated many times as the Chechen commandos made their way through town, collecting hostages as they went. A battle followed in Lenin Square. The Chechens stormed the local administration building, tore down the Russian flag, and put up the standard of the independent Chechnya that President Boris Yeltsin ordered his army to exterminate six months ago. More hostages were seized. Next came the Children's House of Culture, a colonnaded Stalinist building at the far side of the concrete central square. More hostages - and a fire that by yesterday had reduced the building to a smoking wreck.

The streets along their route, which ended at the hospital, are now littered with shot-up cars: a cream Volga riddled and half-overturned in a ditch; a red Moskvitch with a single bullet hole at head height in the driver's side of the windshield, the front seat drenched in blood.

A few locals stand in the shade on street corners, but mostly the town seems dead. But everywhere there are Russian soldiers from the Interior Ministry's own army. They man a barricade blocking the entrance to the hospital, protect the police station, now back in Russian hands and serving as headquarters for a crisis group lead by the Interior Minister, Viktor Yerin, and the head of the Federal Security Bureau, successor to the KGB. Side streets are lined with armoured troop carriers. But like everyone else, the soldiers are waiting.

"The situation is fine," said Mr Yerin breezily yesterday afternoon as he left the city. "It will all end peacefully." But so far there was no sign of it ending.

The leader of the rebels here, Shamil Basayev, said at the hospital that his fighters had executed five of the hostages because the Russian authorities were initially reluctant to allow the gunmen to meet with reporters, as they had demanded.

A delegation of pro-Russian Chechens visited the hospital yesterday to talk with the hostage-takers, but emerged empty-handed. The main Chechen condition is that Russia stop hostilities in Chechnya and withdraw its troops. According to Vakha Gibragimov, one of the negotiators, there was nothing really to discuss: "The war in Chechnya is already over."

In Budennovsk, however, the battle has only just started.