Fog of battle clouds Pervomayskoye's ugly truth

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The Independent Online

Europe Editor

A dense fog of propaganda, rumours and contradictory reports surrounded the 10-day hostage drama in Dagestan, making it virtually impossible to distinguish what really happened from accounts supplied by the Russian authorities and the Chechen rebels.

However, it seemed likely yesterday that, from the Russian point of view, the confrontation had ended in a far from satisfactory manner, with dozens of rebels eluding the forces that bombarded them for four days, escaping into Chechnya and taking some hostages with them.

In all, more than 200 people appear to have been killed since the crisis erupted on 9 January, making it one of the bloodiest episodes since President Boris Yeltsin sent troops into Chechnya in December 1994 to suppress the north Caucasian republic's attempted secession. According to Mr Yeltsin, the dead include 153 rebels, 27 Russian troops and 24 civilians killed in the town of Kizlyar, where the Chechens seized their first group of hostages.

However, Mr Yeltsin omitted yesterday to specify whether the ferocious four-day battle at the village of Pervomayskoye, near Kizlyar, had caused the deaths of any hostages there. He said 82 hostages had been freed and 18 were missing and presumed alive, but since the Russian Interior Ministry stated last Sunday that the Chechens were holding 116 hostages at Pervomayskoye, this would indicate that 16 to 34 hostages are either dead or still in Chechen hands.

To complicate matters, the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, said last Wednesday that only 42 hostages had been freed and none remained in the village. If this is accurate, then 56 to 74 hostages were either killed in the battle or are still Chechen prisoners.

Similar uncertainty surrounds the number of Chechen rebels who died or escaped from Pervomayskoye. The Russian Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB, and the Interior Ministry gave several conflicting estimates of how many guerrillas were holed up in the village, ranging from 150 to 250.

If only 150 rebels were there, then Mr Yeltsin was exaggerating yesterday when he said 153 had been killed and 28 captured (he later revised this figure to 30). But if 250 rebels were in Pervomayskoye, then according to Mr Yeltsin's figures up to 70 must have escaped - unless a lot more bodies are buried under the rubble.

If, as seems possible, the leader of the hostage-taking operation, Salman Raduyev, is among those who escaped, then the Russian military operation looks even less successful. A spokesman for Chechnya's leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, said yesterday that Mr Raduyev had crossed from Dagestan into Chechnya with some fellow-fighters and hostages, including, humiliatingly for Mr Yeltsin, several elite Interior Ministry troops (Omon) whom the rebels captured last week on the outskirts of Pervomayskoye.

Mr Raduyev sparked the showdown on 9 January by leading a pre-dawn raid on the Perevalochnaya helicopter base at Kizlyar, from which he said Russian forces had launched attacks on rebel positions inside Chechnya. The raid turned into a hostage crisis as the rebels, whose numbers were estimated at 200 to 500, stormed Kizlyar hospital and seized up to 3,000 captives.

The rebels initially demanded the removal of all Russian forces from Chechnya as the condition for freeing the hostages, but within hours they had dropped this in favour of a guarantee of safe passage across the Dagestan border to their homeland. By the following morning, they were thought to hold about 160 hostages as they made their way in a convoy of buses and trucks towards the border.

According to Dagestan's Interior Ministry, the rebels stopped near Pervomayskoye because Russian helicopters had fired on the convoy and blown up a bridge on its agreed route. The Chechens then provoked Russian wrath by seizing 37 Omon troops who had been sent from the Siberian city of Novosibirsk to operate near the Chechen-Dagestani border.

Along with more than 50 hostages from Kizlyar hospital and a number of local villagers, the Omon troops were held in the mosque and school at Pervomayskoye. According to some reports, the rebels forced the Omon men to help them strengthen their defences by digging trenches in and around the village.

The Russian authorities justified their decision to attack the village last Monday by saying the rebels had started to execute the Omon men and some Dagestani elders brought in to start negotiations. However, no freed hostage has confirmed the Russian version of events.

As with the Chechen hostage-taking episode last June in the southern Russian city of Budyonnovsk, where more than 100 people were killed, many questions remain about why so much blood had to be spilt for the crisis to end.