A gang of "kamikaze" Chechen gunmen vowed to fight "to the end" last night after seizing 3,000 civilians and barricading themselves into a hospital in a small Russian town.
Fierce gun-battles were reported on the streets of Kizlyar after two of the hostages were said to have been executed. The raiders fired from hospital windows, using patients as human shields, while 4,000 Russian troops encircled the town.
The raid - an audacious repeat of an attack further north last June - is a personal disaster for the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin.
Thirteen months after he launched a military assault on the breakaway Chechen republic, and eight months after declaring victory in the murderous war that followed, he faces a bloody confrontation which could destroy his hopes of his re-election as president this summer.
A band of up to 600 gunmen belonging to the "Lone Wolf" commando group slipped across the Chechen border early yesterday and pounced on the town of Kizlyar three miles, inside the neighbouring territory of Dagestan. About a dozen people were killed in the initial assault.
The gang's leader, Salman Raduyev, said his men were ready to die for Chechnya's independence from Russia."We are not at all concerned for our own lives," he told Russian television last night.
Raduyev, bearded and wearing a green, Islamic headband, said his fighters had enough weapons, including grenade launchers, to hold out for a week. "We have made an oath to our president that we will be kamikazes to the end ... the main slogan of our action is 'death or freedom'," he said.
An enraged Mr Yeltsin was earlier shown on television accusing his border guards of "sleeping". He ordered his Security Minister, Mikhail Barsukov, to take "the most resolute measures" to end the crisis.
The raid virtually repeated the script of an audacious assault on the Russian town of Budennovsk last summer, which ended in near-farce and Russian capitulation.
As in the earlier raid, the gunmen forced civilians from their homes and herded them into the town's central hospital compound. Moscow officials spoke yesterday of 1,000 hostages but local police put the figure at 3,000. Two families who refused to leave their homes were said to have been murdered.
Women hostages pleaded tearfully last night for an end to their ordeal. Television crews filmed dozens of hostages, some of them attached to intravenous drips. A gunman, brandishing an assault rifle, said: "We have nothing to lose. We are here to the end." Itar-Tass reported from Dagestan that the rebels had promised to free women and old people if the Russian government agreed to some of their demands.
In Moscow, Mr Yeltsin was furious at the failure of his army to prevent the incursion into Dagestan, on the Caspian Sea. In a tirade broadcast on television, he accused ministers of learning nothing from the Budennovsk crisis. "We have been dealt another blow," he fumed.
The Lone Wolf gang was founded last year by Raduyev, the son-in-law of rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev. The assault force is thought to have set out from the Chechen rebel strongholds in the Caucasus mountains and, unnoticed, crossed 100 miles of Russian-controlled Chechnya and Dagestan to reach its goal.
Last June, despite pressure for a tough response to the hostage-taking, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin was allowed to negotiate an end to the nightmare in Budennovsk. Hundreds of civilians were released unhurt after Moscow promised to open peace talks and allow the gunmen safe passage back to their hideouts in the Chechen mountains. This time Mr Yeltsin is likely to heed the hawks, but ending the crisis will not be easy.
Just as the Kremlin is likely to be in a mood to use force, the Chechen rebels can be expected to be more intransigent . The talks set up by Mr Chernomyrdin in June produced a deal that the Chechens would disarm in return for a withdrawal of Russian troops from their territory. This was violated on both sides.
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