WORLD

Crisis over Chechnya

Rebels hold more than 100 hostages in a tense standoff

MALCOLM GRAY January 22 1996
WORLD

Crisis over Chechnya

Rebels hold more than 100 hostages in a tense standoff

MALCOLM GRAY January 22 1996

Crisis over Chechnya

WORLD

RUSSIA

Rebels hold more than 100 hostages in a tense standoff

Russians had seen it all before—and they were angry. In a virtual replay of a massive hostage-taking incident in June, truckloads of separatist fighters drove undetected across the steppes bordering their rebellious southern region of Chechnya during the early hours of Jan. 9. This time, the target for 200 members of the Lone Wolf guerrilla group was Kizlyar, a town of 44,000 in the neighboring region of Dagestan, 100 km northeast of the Chechen capital of Grozny. Repeating the tactics of the June attack on Budyonnovsk in southern Russia, the Chechen fighters seized up to 3,000 hostages and herded them into a local hospital, then released all but about 120 and entered tense negotiations over a withdrawal into Chechnya. By the weekend, the situation was poised on a knife-edge. Moscow set a Sunday-morning deadline for the rebels to give up their remaining hostages, heightening fears of a bloody confrontation between the rebels and security forces massed around them.

For President Boris Yeltsin, facing a possible re-election campaign, the drama represented one of the biggest tests of his presidency. He was caught between two potentially conflicting objectives: saving the hostages and punishing the gunmen. With public opinion running strongly against the

rebels, Yeltsin appeared to be leaning towards a forceful solution. “Human life is precious,” he declared. “But those bandits have to be punished.”

That statement reflected the hardening Russian attitude towards terror tactics by Chechen separatists. In June, while Yeltsin was in Halifax for a G-7 conference, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin received widespread praise for allowing another rebel band safe passage home in return for freeing hostages they seized during the bloody raid on Budyonnovsk. But when the rebels asked that Chernomyrdin participate in talks this time, Moscow ignored the request.

The Chechens had already outraged Russians by causing 23 deaths as they took over Kizlyar. Yeltsin initially endorsed an agreement under which the guerrillas released most of their captives in exchange for buses. The Chechens then retreated from the hospital in a convoy of 11 vehicles, protected by a human shield that included many women and children. According to Yeltsin, the Chechens were guaranteed safe passage only for the short journey to the Dagestan side of the Chechen border. Once there, he said, they had reneged on an agreement to release the remaining captives. Said Yeltsin: “If they free the hostages, events will

take one turn. If they do not free them, events will take a different turn.” Those ominous words presaged a tense confrontation as the convoy ground to a halt on the windswept plains near the tiny border village of Pervomayskoye on Jan. 10. Shadowed by Russian tanks and buzzed by military helicopters overhead, the rebels spilled out of the buses as night fell and warned that they would start killing the hostages if Russian troops came within 100 metres. “We are not afraid to die,” shouted Salman Raduyev, the bearded 28-year-old group leader who is the sonin-law of fugitive Chechen president Dzhokar Dudayev. Across the country, Russians watched gripping television pictures of women captives waving white rags from the windows of the stalled buses.

The rebels swiftly took over Pervomayskoye, dispersing their captives in houses vacated by fleeing inhabitants. The Russians responded by tightening a ring of steel around the village. Scores of tanks, troop carriers and howitzers underlined Moscow’s tough position in sporadic discussions with the gunmen: no entry into Chechnya until all the hostages had been released. The rebels countered by asking for written guarantees of safe passage. They also demanded that they be accompanied by a human shield— including 37 police officers they took I hostage on the way to the border. On “ Jan. 12, the rebels released eight hostages, but no more. The next day, Russian authorities issued their Sunday-morning deadline.

Even before Dagestan became the latest casualty of a conflict that has dragged on for 13 months, Yeltsin had acknowledged that going to war to keep Chechnya within Russia was the greatest mistake of his career. Warweary Russians want the shooting to stop. Yet they remain divided on the best means. A shrinking minority favor letting Chechnya go. But growing numbers, incensed by the rebels’ increasingly desperate tactics, endorse renewed military action.

With presidential elections looming in June, the war is a central issue in the campaign. Yeltsin is expected to declare in February whether he will run again. Although his recent hospitalization for heart problems cast doubt on his political future, he declared himself in “perfect health” in Paris. Formally declaring his own candidacy last week, flamboyant arch-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky urged Yeltsin to destroy the Chechen rebels with napalm. “If you don’t,” he said, “then you will lose the election and I will do it.” With the rebels threatening to stage more terrorist attacks, Yeltsin’s hopes of retaining power could fall victim to a war that has already claimed almost 30,000 lives.

MALCOLM GRAY in Moscow