After a four-day assault on the Chechen rebels holed up with their hostages in the village of Pervomayskoye, Boris Yeltsin last night threatened a new attack on the Chechen leader, Dzokhar Dudayev.
Meanwhile, Turkey said it would use force to keep a comandeered Black Sea ferry from Istanbul's strategic Bosphorus strait, setting up a possible show-down with hijackers armed with automatic weapons and high explosives.
A naval officer said two frigates and a destroyer were shadowing the ferry Avrasya, seized by pro-Chechen gunmen on Tuesday night along with 200 hostages. The minister's tough talk followed a failed effort to airlift a diabetic policeman and a pregnant women from the ship to the big industrial port of Eregli.
Speaking by cellular telephone from the ship Mohamed Tokcan, the hijackers' leader, said he agreed to the Turkish demand. "We'll do what the Turkish side wants us to do. They are our elders," he said.
The end of the pulverising siege of Pervomayskoye left large questions unanswered - over the death toll, and the conduct of the Russian forces
Mr Yeltsin said he would take the initiative against Mr Dudayev, apparently threatening a resumption of the bloody civil war which cost both sides heavily last year. "We have taught Dudayev a sound lesson and we now need to strike at all the Dudayev strongholds where there are no civilians in order to do away with terrorism on Russian soil," he said.
Mr Yeltsin stunned independent observers by claiming that 82 of the Chechens' hostages had emerged safely - a figure that seemed astonishingly high given the intensity of the Russian bombardment.
It also directly contradicts claims by senior military officials earlier this week that most of the hostages had been murdered by the kidnappers. Mr Yeltsin's version of events has already been challenged in Russia, despite stringent efforts to prevent reporters gaining access to the battle.
A report in Izvestia said yesterday that the attack had been reckless and disorganised. "To call this an operation to save hostages is, to say the least, cynical," wrote Izvestia's correspondent, Valery Yakov.
Two former hostages in hospital in Aksai, near Pervomayskoye, said that 200 or more of the gunmen may have left Pervomayskoye in the early hours of yesterday with some hostages to shield them from Russian troops. Their comments appeared to contradict Russian reports that the breakout had failed.
The Russian interior ministry said the bodies of 153 Chechen rebels had been found in the village, and that 28 rebels had also been captured - though their leader, Salman Raduyev, may have escaped. Mr Yeltsin said 26 Russian troops had died.
Film from on board the Avrasya broadcast on Turkish television yesterday showed the hijackers looking tired and nervous but determined. They were dressed like pirates in baggy coats and balaclavas, with grenades on their jackets, knives in their belts and all kinds of weapons in their hands.
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