The Chechen separatist commander who led a raid on a southern Russian city said he executed five hostages Thursday in a besieged hospital and threatened to kill hundreds more unless the Russian government met his demands to end its war in Chechnya.
The commander, Shamil Basayev, announced the executions at the end of a long day of negotiations opened by President Boris N. Yeltsin's government in a careful effort to avoid new casualties after Wednesday's swift, deadly terrorist attack on the city of Budennovsk.
Anti-terrorist squads kept the three-story hospital surrounded all day with tanks, sharpshooters and soldiers in flak jackets. Russian officials said earlier there were no plans to storm the building, held by heavily armed guerrillas who threatened to blow it up with mines.
"The authorities will do everything possible for a bloodless settlement," said Alexander Mikhailov, a spokesman for the Federal Security Service.
At least 60 people died Wednesday as the rebels, all but defeated by Moscow's six-month invasion of Chechnya, brought the war to Russia proper for the first time.
Officials said the dead included 37 police officers and soldiers, 17 civilians and six guerrillas. An additional 69 people were wounded Wednesday.
The 100,000 residents of Budennovsk, an industrial city on a desolate plain 70 miles from the Chechen border, were in shock and mourning Thursday.
Russian television showed corpses laid in rows on the streets, while firefighters were still battling blazes set during the well-planned daylight raid.
"They took hostages in the main square, opened fire at the building of the tax police and hoisted a green [Chechen] flag," a schoolteacher told the Reuters news service. "They opened fire at the doors of nearby buildings. They seized women, and those who tried to resist were shot."
The Interior Ministry said 50 masked men with automatic rifles and grenade launchers were holding hundreds of captives at the hospital for a second day, including patients, medical staff and people pulled off the street.
Reporters allowed inside Thursday night estimated the number of hostages at 2,000 and said they were lying close to each other on hospital floors.
Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev put the number of hostages at 1,000.
Gen. Vakha Ibragimov, a former Chechen Interior minister who was shuttling in and out of the hospital as a mediator, said the hostages were provided with food and water. But the Chechens threatened to execute 10 of them for every guerrilla killed.
A doctor held hostage donated his blood for a transfusion to keep a seriously wounded attacker alive, Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reported.
A brief exchange of gunfire was heard at the hospital Thursday after negotiations broke off. But the talks resumed later by telephone and through the mediator, joined by village elders brought from Chechnya by the Russian side.
Although the Chechen gunmen were demanding withdrawal of Russian forces from their tiny Muslim republic, the talks focused on lesser issues.
After rejecting an appeal to free children and pregnant women, the Chechens asked that bodies of their dead fighters be brought to the hospital, apparently in exchange for hostages. They also held a meeting inside the hospital with journalists to explain their cause.
It was only then that Basayev's identity as the guerrilla leader became clear.
The bearded, 30-year-old Basayev is known as the most daring of Chechen field commanders.
He told reporters that he executed the five hostages--three air force pilots and two police officers he claimed had fought on the Russian side in Chechnya--because Russian officials had balked at allowing the news conference.
"Servicemen and local officials will be the first" to be shot, Russia's RIA news agency quoted Basayev as saying. "Women and children will not be subject to such cruel actions."
Basayev said he plotted and led the raid without approval from Chechen leader Dzhokar M. Dudayev, who had issued a statement from hiding denying responsibility.
The attack was the most serious sign of division in the Chechen leadership. Field commanders, saying they had been driven from their land, have for weeks been advocating attacks on the Russian heartland.
But Dudayev, who first declared Chechnya's independence three years ago, has resisted, saying such a step would undermine sympathy for their cause abroad.
Russian leaders, condemned in the West for their brutal Chechen campaign, atrocities against civilians and an estimated 20,000 deaths, moved quickly to exploit the tragedy.
"The crime committed in Budennovsk should open the eyes of foreign politicians who failed to realize the true reasons for the Chechen tragedy and chose to lecture Russia instead of supporting it in its struggle against separatism and organized crime," a Foreign Ministry communique said.
Yeltsin said the "cruelty and cynicism" of the attack should "put an end to any doubt about the criminal nature of the Dudayev regime" and the need to crush it.
Critics were not convinced.
"If the authorities are counting on putting an end to the drama of Chechnya by military methods, they are making a serious error," former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev said.
Alexi II, the Russian Orthodox patriarch, urged Chechen guerrillas to respect "the holy gift of life," while pleading with Russian police "not to give way to emotions during these fateful days."
Thousands of troops were deployed against possible attacks in Moscow.