Declaring "terrorism cannot be tolerated in any civilised state", President Boris Yeltsin justified his decision to send troops into the southern Russian village of Pervomayskoye against Chechen rebels who have been holding about 100 hostages for nearly a week.
The soldiers, backed by helicopter gunships, began storming the village in the morning and Mr Yeltsin promised they would quickly finish their mission, causing little bloodshed. But, as darkness fell, the army still had to clear Pervomayskoye of scores more gunmen loyal to the Chechen leader, General Dzhokhar Dudayev, and the fate of the remaining hostages was unknown.
The Interior Ministry said last night that 10 hostages had been freed but this was not independently corroborated.
More than two hours after the attack was launched - a barrage of rocket fire from helicopter gunships backed by shelling from tanks and field guns - Major-General Alexander Mikhailov, the spokesman for the Federal Security Services (FSB), announced the "storming" of the village had not even yet begun. He said the Russian military knew exactly which three buildings the hostages were being held in and that not one had been shelled. However the scale of the bombardment made it difficult to believe that they would escape unhurt.
The man leading the Russians in battle, the FSB chief Mikhail Barsukov, said he had given the order to attack after the rebels, belonging to a group calling themselves the Lone Wolves, had started shooting hostages on Sunday. But in a radio broadcast to the Chechen capital, Grozny, the leader of the militants, Salman Raduyev, denied this. "Not a single hostage was killed yesterday or today and we have no intention of killing them," he said.
The FSB, an offshoot of the KGB whose control of this operation is in itself an indication of Mr Yeltsin's move to the right, accused the Chechens of trying to impose "unacceptable conditions" and categorically refusing to negotiate.
The Russian commandos were charged with the delicate task of saving as many of the hostages as possible. But Mr Yeltsin, mindful that he cannot afford a weak image with presidential elections only five months away, also demanded that the terrorists be punished.
"Dudayev himself said everything was being done on his instructions. He has exposed himself as a bandit, the very chief terrorist," said the President, suggesting that Russia is likely to return to the war in Chechnya itself with a vengeance.
The human rights campaigner Sergei Kovalyov, nominated for the Nobel Peace prize for his opposition to the war in Chechnya, lamented the assault on Pervomayskoye. "The so-called operation to free the hostages is developing with great probability into an operation to wipe out the hostages," he said on Ekho Moskvy radio. "It is all the same for those unfortunates who is going to kill them - terrorists, artillerymen, pilots or special police."
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the French government also expressed concern. But Mr Yeltsin, whose administration allowed Chechen rebels to escape after a similar hostage drama in Budyennovsk, southern Russia, last June, is determined to be tougher this time.
While the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, the dove who negotiated the end of the Budyennovsk crisis, was out of action with a "cold" yesterday, Mr Yeltsin held talks with his hawkish Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev.
But the appointment yesterday of Nikolai Yegorov to replace the liberal Sergei Filatov as head of Mr Yeltsin's personal administration marked an advance for the hardliners. Mr Yegorov, who helped to launch the 1994 crackdown against the Chechens, will join the FSB chief, Mr Barsukov, and the President's personal bodyguard, Alexander Korzhakov, in the coterie around Mr Yeltsin.
How ever the Pervomayskoye drama ends, the damage to Mr Yeltsin is already done. Igor Serebryany, a local politician in Moscow, described the crisis as a "political Chernobyl" for him.
Today, when the new Duma convenes, there will be uproar from those accusing the President of being too feeble, those accusing him of being too brutal and those blaming him for dragging Russia into the Chechen war in the first place. The liberal Yabloko grouping has already declared its intention to call for a vote of no-confidence in the government.
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