Guns fall silent, but the truth is elusive

Battle for Pervomayskoye: 'There was no hope. They were firing machine guns, grenade launchers, everything. It was hell'
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The Independent Online

near Pervomayskoye

As darkness fell, the landscape of northern Dagestan, pristine under a fresh fall of snow, fell silent after a day of intermittent bombing which had finally reduced the village to ruins.

But the counting was still going on. Boris Yeltsin said 153 Chechen fighters had been killed, and 28 captured; the Russian forces had lost only 26 soldiers; and 82 hostages were freed while 18 were unaccounted for, possibly escaped. But these figures must remain at the very least, highly dubious.

If the President is right then it gives the lie to statements by his Federal Security Service which on Wednesday said Russian forces were finally finishing off the operation with "massive fire" after the Chechens had massacred "practically all" of their hostages, apart from 28 who were either freed or escaped.

Mr Yeltsin's claims were also at odds with a figure of 42 freed hostages given by his Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and added to a day of confusion which owed much to the Kremlin's decision to expel journalists from the vicinity of Pervomayskoye for the last phase of the assault.

The hostages themselves, taken after the Chechen Lone Wolf group seized a hospital in Kizlyar, were far from convinced that the Russian soldiers had their best interests at heart. Dima Alexanderovich, 38, eyes red with fatigue, said he escaped after breaking through Russian lines with a band of Chechens. He denied Russian claims that the Chechens executed any of the hostages. "They never shot anyone," he said, "they didn't abuse us, they did not even swear."

Mr Alexanderovich, a driver at the hospital at Kizlyar, told Agence France- Presse that he never felt at risk from the Chechens but from his rescuers. The Russians almost killed him on numerous occasions, he said. "The last two days they were simply carpet bombing us. There's not a house left undamaged."

Kurban Ibargimovich, 31, said that on Wednesday when the Russians intensified bombing the Chechens tried to break through their lines to Chechnya and he went with them. "There was total panic. No one thought we would live. There was firing on three sides and it seemed there was no hope," he said. "They were firing everything - machine-guns, grenade launchers, everything. It was hell."

The truth about the death toll, and the conduct of the operation, remains elusive. Mr Yeltsin also said that the reason the assault on the small village was so protracted was that it concealed an underground base with concrete gun emplacements - a bizarre claim.

What was clear though was that the Russians carried through the threat to use massive force to end the 10-day crisis.Throughout Wednesday night, the Russians pounded the village with Grad missiles and heavy artillery in the most intense assault of the last three days. Yesterday morning the bombardment continued intermittently, interrupted by occasional volleys of machine-gun fire before dying away in the afternoon.

Last night details of the casualties caused by the bombing were trickling in. Russian TV crews who were taken to within 500 miles of the village by the military authorities, saw 30 bodies, apparently Chechen fighters. They said that some of the guerrillas had broken out of Pervomayskoye, which was reduced to rubble, and had been mowed down after penetrating Russian lines.

A Russian soldier also produced a video tape of what appeared to be about 20 Chechens taken prisoner by the Russians.

Meanwhile, unconfirmed reports circulated that the rebel leader, Salman Raduyev, had escaped from the blitzed village along with 100 fellow fighters.

In the early hours yesterday the Russians suffered another humiliation when Chechen rebels managed to attack the forces from the rear by mounting a raid in nearby Sovietskoye, reportedly killing three policemen.

Mr Yeltsin will do his best to squeeze political advantage from this affair, presenting himself as a decisive leader willing to crush Chechen terrorism. But the operation took too long and was too badly bungled for him to gain much credit.