Some 130 hostages were last night trapped on Russia's border with Chechnya - caught in a tense standoff between their rebel captors and the Kremlin.
The impasse developed after the rebels' convoy halted in a remote border village as they were trying to retreat from the Republic of Dagestan, where they had held more than 3,000 hostages captive in a hospital for 14 hours.
The convoy came to a halt because a bridge had been blown up during fighting in the area. The Lone Wolf rebels, commanded by Salman Raduyev, a relative of the Chechen leader General Dzhokhar Dudayev, threatened to kill hostages if the bridge was not restored. Russians officials accused the Chechen fighters of reneging on a promise to release the hostages at the border in return for safe passage to their mountain bases in the breakaway republic.
Last night the convoy - nine buses in an ice-bound field - was surrounded by Russian troops, supported by tanks and helicopters. As troops sheltered in freezing trenches, reports circulated that some of the rebels had fanned out into a village and seized a police post.
The Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, warned the rebels not to use violence, before leaving Moscow for Paris yesterday to attend a memorial service in honour of Francois Mitterrand.
According to Alexander Mikhailov, head of the Federal Intelligence Agency, there were some 150 rebels in the group, who, in the early hours of Tuesday, stormed into Kizlyar, a ramshackle border town of 47,000 people, and took control of the central hospital and an adjoining maternity home. They beat their way into homes in the town centre and herded hundreds of people into the building at gunpoint.
Early yesterday, after striking a deal with the Russians, and releasing most of their captives, the rebels left the town leaving in their wake at least 13 dead, a wrecked hospital and a groundswell of anger and resentment among Dagestanis who regarded the assault as tantamount to a cowardly attack on fellow Muslims.
Yesterday local officials were seething with resentment that Chechens should have launched an assault in which they involved so many pregnant women. "If they wanted to fight they should have dealt with the men," said one Dagestani.
The latest hostage drama is a disastrous blow for Mr Yeltsin, with presidential elections only five months away. The Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, said the "bandits" responsible would be punished. "But we do not intend to use head-on methods which could put the lives of the hostages at risk."
The new Duma is due to convene next week and in response to the inevitable uproar among deputies Mr Yeltsin is likely to sack government members. An obvious candidate for dismissal would be the unpopular Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, who dragged Russia into the war with Chechnya in the first place.
But finding scapegoats might not be enough to make Mr Yeltsin re-electable. Yesterday many Russian newspapers criticised the President personally. And General Alexander Lebed, who could be a candidate in the June poll, described the current leadership as "rotten", saying Russians were being "held hostage to its incompetence".Reuse content