Chechen rebels were reacting with increased nervousness last night as Kremlin troops in armoured personnel carriers encircled the convoy of buses where they were holding up to 200 men, women and children as hostages on the snowswept steppes of southern Russia.
The militants were initially hostile, threatening to shoot the hostages. But later they offered to release women and children if the army stopped its menacing manoeuvres.
Later a convoy of official cars was reported to have entered the village of Pervomayskoye, scene of the drama on the freezing plains between the regions of Dagestan and Chechnya. This raised hopes of a negotiated settlement although the situation remained tense and complicated.
In Paris, where Boris Yeltsin was attending the requiem Mass for Francois Mitterrand, the Kremlin leader caused press excitement by telling reporters he was ready to withdraw Russian troops from Chechnya if the rebels abandoned the use of force. But a closer reading of his words suggested this might only be a reiteration of an old Kremlin position.
"There are talks going on inside Chechnya," Mr Yeltsin said after meeting President Jacques Chirac. "As soon as [the rebels] agree on not using weapons, we will withdraw our troops. Only the police will remain to maintain public order." Moscow and Grozny agreed at peace talks last summer that Russian troops would withdraw while Chechen militants simultaneously disarmed but the treaty was violated on both sides. The Kremlin has insisted that a Chechen surrender of arms remains the precondition for a troop pull-out. The Muslim militants, sticking to their demand for nothing less than full independence, say the Russian army, which they regard as one of occupation, must go.
Certainly events on the ground yesterday gave little cause for optimism. The army, which stopped the convoy at Pervomayskoye on Wednesday, moved in closer to the parked buses where the hostages were sheltering from icy winds. The Chechens responded by lining the hostages up outside as a "human shield" in case the troops attacked. But after nightfall, the long-suffering prisoners were put back in the buses.
A Dagestan government spokesman, Gadzhi Aripov, said the leader of the rebel group, Salman Raduyev, was alarmed by reports that more Russian armoured vehicles were approaching the already powerful ring of troops and armour, saying the rebels would open fire if they came too close. "The Dagestan authorities propose letting the convoy into Chechnya without using force," he said.
Details about the talks were scarce but Alexander Mikhailov, a general with the Russian intelligence service, said the rebels kept changing their minds.
For more than 130 of the hostages, the ordeal has lasted since early on Tuesday, when the rebels seized a hospital in the Dagestani town of Kizlyar and held between 2,000 and 3,000 patients and staff at gunpoint. Most were released when the rebels abandoned Kizlyar on Wednesday but some 130 were dragged along for the bus ride. In Pervomayskoye, the Chechens took a further group of hostages.
Itar-Tass reported last night that four hostages had escaped. It said the Interior Ministry had said that the four, all members of the Omon special forces police, managed to run away after dark and make it to the lines of encircling Russian troops.
The hostage crisis, the second such emergency in Russia in less than a year, is a nightmare for Mr Yeltsin who, if his health permits, is hoping to run for a second term as president this year.
In an interview with the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets yesterday, the Chechen leader, General Dzhokhar Dudayev, taunted President Yeltsin, saying he had ordered the raid on Kizlyar and could stage hundreds more such attacks.
Raduyev, who is leading the present operation with about 200 other militants who call themselves the "Lone Wolves", is General Dudayev's son-in-law.
More than 120 people died in a similar hostage drama in the southern Russian town of Budennovsk last June, and at least 23 people have been killed in the current crisis.Reuse content