Rebels return bodies from siege hospital

Russian hostage crisis: Fear of bloodbath grows as government threatens to end crisis with lightning strike
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The Independent Online
ANDREW HIGGINS

in Budennovsk

"Is there anyone in there in yellow cordoroy pants?" shrieked Ludmilla Popkova from the back of the crowd yesterday outside the No 1 Bath House on Sovetskaya Street, as young men, hankerchiefs over their mouths to keep out the stench, unloaded a cargo of 50 corpses from a lorry in the blazing sun.

The trousers she was seeking and dreading to find belonged to her husband. He put them on on Wednesday, before setting off with his 70-year-old mother for a day at the dacha. Neither has been seen since.

Someone nearer the truck, which had just arrived from the hospital where Chechen gunmen are holding at least 1,300 hostages, shouted back that the only bodies he could see were in police uniforms and black pants.

The news offered little comfort and may only prolong the agony. With Russian soldiers now on every main street and the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, suggesting a quick strike as the only way to settle the crisis, Bath House No 1 may soon have more deliveries.

"I still don't know if my husband is dead or alive," said Mrs Popkova, on her second trip of the day to the makeshift morgue, set up after Chechens stormed this sleepy town and herded as many as 3,000 residents into the local hospital. "He has vanished and we don't know what is going on."

For her, the search for an answer begins at the local bullet-scarred police station. There she can inspect two typed lists: one, 12 pages long, has the name of 627 people confirmed as hostages; the other names 73 people confirmed as dead.

But the longest list is not typed but scribbled hastily by hand by two women at the table in the shade. It names those who have simply vanished - the missing in action in a war that has nothing to do with them. It stood at more than 650 yesterday, and is expected to get higher as people report absent relatives.

Most are almost certainly at the local hospital, held hostage there in a desperate brutal gamble by Shamil Basayev, the Chechen commander who stormed Budennovsk in revenge for Russia's victories in Chechnya. Russia has offered money and an escape plane but Mr Basayev sticks to demand - the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. To deter an assault on the hospital, his men have surrounded their prisoners with petrol containers and explosive oxygen tanks.

"We can take the building easily," boasted Sergei, the Russian soldier standing beside an armoured personnel carrier outside the hospital's main gate. "But there is one problem. They will kill everyone." A member of the 21st Parachute Brigade, he used to be posted in Grozny.

Local residents fear Moscow will attempt a swift solution and gathered yesterday for an angry meeting in Lenin Square, pleading with the government to give in. Much louder though, will be the voice of Mr Grachev, the man who once predicted that what is now a six-month conflict in Chechnya would be over with little pain in a couple of hours.

"Give them whatever they want. Pull out the troops. Give them money. Do anything. Nothing is worse than thousands of corpses," said Victor Minets, whose wife is one of hundreds of medical staff seized at the hospital. He has spoken to her several times by telephone. Each time she gets more desperate.

"She was weeping terribly. She sees no way out." Others demand that local authorities round up ethnic Chechens living in Budennovsk in retaliation.

Estimates of the number of hostages in the hospital vary wildly. And new captives are being added daily. The main building seized by the Chechens includes the maternity ward. At least three new babies have been born since Wednesday.

The only people to leave the hospital yesterday were a six-month baby and a three year-old girl, suffering hepatitis - and the corpses sent to the bath house. The Chechens say they have executed five Russian officers among their prisoners. But most of yesterday's bodies were killed in Wednesday's orgy of gunfire.

"I hope, God willing, it will end well, but it is very hard to believe. If military people are the ones in charge of settling it it won't end well at all. They should send diplomats," said Victor Sorokhin. His brother, his sister-in-law and their two children were all captured. The Chechens shot their dog, blasted the glass porch of their home on Pushkinskaya Street and grabbed the entire family for the forced march to the hospital.

He rages against the Russian government and condemns President Boris Yeltsin for flying off to Halifax for a G7 summit instead of coming here. Also absent was the Prime Minister, Victor Chernomyrdin, on holiday. He reportedly flew back to Moscow on Thursday.

"The highest levels of government need to come here to talk to the terrorists. But look who they send. They send the security people: [Victor] Yerin, [Nikolai] Yegorov. And what do military people do? They shoot."

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