Russians fail to land knockout blow on rebels

Hostage crisis: Dozens still at risk as slow-moving assault on Chechen kidnappers turns into a political disaster for Moscow
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What began as an effort to establish his hard line credentials was fast turning into flop for Boris Yeltsin yesterday, as his army spent a second day blasting a village in Dagestan in an effort to wrest it back from a band of hostage-taking Chechen revels.

The scores of Russian tank shells and rockets that arched across the snowbound fields and slammed in to the remnants of Pervomayskoye provided the Kremlin with a continuous reminder that their plans had gone off track.

The onslaught was supposed to have been a quick, if brutal, exercise to demonstrate that Mr Yeltsin will not allow his government to be held to ransom by 150 Chechens, even if it means jeopardising the lives of scores of hostages, including women and children.

But instead of being over within a day, as the President had intended, the thump of artillery shells and grenades were still echoing across the landscape when darkness fell.

The President was able to take comfort from the recovery of 26 hostages, reducing the number still being held by Salman Raduyev and his fighters to less than 100, as well as 37 ministry of interior policemen.

Russian officials claimed some hostages were rescued by their special forces after being used as human shields by the rebels, who made them wave white flags and walk in front of them when the bombardment first erupted.

While they were happy to parade them before the cameras, the Russians tried to bar the released captives, including two staff from WGN television, from giving interviews, no doubt fearing they would condemn the Russian assault.

That was a small victory in a disappointing operation for the Kremlin. The Federal Security Service (FSB) admitted Russian forces were proceeding "very slowly" after meeting unexpected resistance from the Chechens in a day of fierce fighting - a cacophony of machine gun exchanges and grenade attacks which could be heard for miles around.

As the Russians braced themselves for an operation that could last for days, the bombardment of the Muslim village by tanks, heavy field guns, and other high powered weaponry became more intermittent as the day wore on.

For much of the morning, Russian helicopters gunships flew above the village, blasting it with rockets. From time to time, the large field guns several miles south of the village lobbed shells into its midst, starting fires.

The Russians by yesterday afternoon claimed to have taken about one third of the village. But they said the Chechins were well dug in, in a network of trenches around the village and a scattering of mud and brick buildings in a network of muddy streets.

"Their defenses are well prepared", said the SSB's chief spokesman, General Alexander Mikhailov, "There are many snipers. Our objective is not to force the pace, and to avoid to excessive casualties among attackers and the hostages."

But he made no secret that the Russian army aims to wipe out all the rebels, including their 28-year-old leader, who he said was still alive. "We are not counting them in terms of corpses we are counting them in terms in terms of arms and legs," he said.

He said the Russian military had been particularly deterred by Chechen snipers: "They have a range of 800 metres. This was not part of our plan."

The Russians claimed the Chechens, who took refuge in the village after taking hostages in nearby Kizlya, eight days ago, had divided their captives up in to groups of 10 when the bombardment began, and had put them to work carrying shells and other ammunition. The women were being used to prepare food.

As they concentrated their attack on a Chechen-held pocket of land to the south of the village, the Russians insisted they were doing everything possible to avoid bombarding buildings in which they believe the hostages are located.

But in an ominous sign that they maybe laying the ground for large scale casualties, General Mikhailov accused the rebels of peppering the buildings with rifle fire and setting them ablaze.

The chances are that the Kremlin will eventually achieve its objective, although without winning any political plaudits.

But the Chechens are capable of mounting more damaging operations before June's presidential elections, which may tempt Mr Yeltsin to cancel them, sighting the war as his excuse.

Yesterday there were reports that about 40 Russians had been kidnapped from a power station in Grozny by Chechen fighters. But last night these reports appeared unfounded.