Russian forces yesterday set out to obliterate Pervomayskoye and all its inhabitants - rebel and hostage - after two days of humiliating and public failure to capture the tiny Caucasian village.
Salvo after salvo was fired from Grad rocket launchers at the collection of wooden and mud huts where up to 250 Chechen rebels have been defying the might of the Russian army. A final onslaught is expected today. Russian officials bluntly wrote off the chances of the estimated 100 men, women and children hostages still unaccounted for.
Meanwhile, a Black Sea ferry packed with Russian trippers was lurching through stormy weather under the control of a band of heavily armed hijackers sympathetic to the Chechen cause. The gunmen had threatened to blow up the Avrasya in the Bosphorus strait with nearly 200 people on board unless the assault on Pervomayskoye was stopped.
However, Mohammed Tokcan, the captors' leader, accepted a radio offer from Turkey's intelligence chief to free the hostages in Istanbul after being allowed a press conference. Another of the gunmen said late last night that all hostages might be freed if they reached Istanbul with no intervention. "Our only wish is for the security forces not to intervene. Then there will be no need to intervene - we are not murderers," the gunman told private ATV television. Asked if this meant the gunmen would safely release all of the hostages on arrival in Istanbul, the gunman said: "Yes, this is possible."
The seizure of the ageing ferry on Tuesday night at the Turkish port of Trabzon marked the first time the Chechen conflict had spread outside Russia's borders. With the authority and reputation of President Boris Yeltsin's government severely damaged at home and abroad, it was confirmed that Chechens had also seized and abducted 30 workers at an electric power plant in the Chechen capital, Grozny, on Tuesday.
In a letter to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said yesterday that it was necessary "to continue disarming illegal armed units" in Chechnya, indicating Moscow was ready to resume a military drive against the separatists.
But there were growing indications of Western unease at Russian brutality yesterday, mixed with condemnation of the Chechen actions. The White House reiterated its concern; Germany urged Moscow to exercise restraint; and Baroness Chalker, Minister for Overseas Development, told the House of Lords she believed that unnecessary brutality had been used. Council of Europe officials said the assault could hurt Russia's application to join the group, considered the club of European democracies.
Seeking to justify their assault on Pervomayskoye, the Russians yesterday reiterated claims that the Chechens were executing the hostages they have held for a week. "Because the situation is becoming more complicated, we have decided to conclude the operation," said Major- General Alexander Mikhailov, a spokesman for the Federal Security Service, a successor to the KGB. Asked about the fate of the hostages, he said: "We have little hope for them." As many as 41 hostages were claimed to have been freed in the last two days of fighting.
In Istanbul it emerged that Mr Topcan and his half-dozen gunmen come from a community of Turkish citizens who are descended from more than a million people forced to flee the Tsarist and Soviet conquests of the Caucasus in the past century.
Russians close in, page 8
Who the Chechens are, page 13
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