Chechen Raiders Seize, Release 3,000 in Russia
Hundreds of armed Chechen guerrillas slipped past sleeping federal troops to unleash terror on the Caucasus town of Kizlyar on Tuesday, herding as many as 3,000 hostages into a maternity hospital and threatening to turn the quiet community into “hell and ashes.”
Most of the captives were released early today after officials of the local government despaired of getting guidance from the Kremlin and bowed to the gunmen’s demands for safe passage back to their embattled homeland.
The Chechen militants left in a convoy of buses with eight officials of the regional Dagestani government who volunteered to take the place of traumatized civilians, the deputy head of the regional governing council, Alimpasha A. Akavov, said in a telephone interview.
But the gunmen also grabbed about 40 of the freed captives, including women and children, as insurance for an unimpeded journey back to Chechnya, Akavov said.
He had harsh words for the leadership of President Boris N. Yeltsin, whose December 1994 invasion of Chechnya has unleashed a hellish wave of violence across southern Russia.
“I am really amazed that the Russian government did nothing to free the people,” Akavov said. “The Russian government was too slow to react, and seeing this, the government of the republic of Dagestan decided to take its own measures.”
About 60,000 Chechens live in Dagestan, a multiethnic autonomous republic bordering Chechnya. Akavov said local authorities feared that if the hostage drama was not brought to a swift end, ethnic clashes could have erupted in the region.
“Our people were quite ready to start evicting the Chechens from Dagestan. This is the only factor that made the Chechens retreat,” he said.
The gunmen loyal to Chechnya’s president-in-hiding, Dzhokar M. Dudayev, had terrorized their captives with threats of systematic executions unless federal forces controlling Chechnya began an immediate withdrawal.
In a carbon copy of their assault on the southern Russian town of Budennovsk seven months ago, in which 150 people were killed, the Dudayev militants shot at least two of the Kizlyar hostages in a cold-blooded underscoring of their conditions for peace, Russian media reported.
At least 20 others--policemen, civilians and some of the gunmen--died in the storming of the town before dawn Tuesday.
A relative of Dudayev’s, Salman Raduyev, led the attack on Kizlyar, a small industrial center of about 40,000.
In a chillingly matter-of-fact account aired on videotape by Independent Television, Raduyev explained the assault as a military operation to take out a helicopter base that went wrong. When the site proved to have only three combat aircraft instead of the eight they had expected, the Dudayev loyalists “decided to stay in town a little longer,” Raduyev said.
“If the federal authorities and the government of Dagestan want this, we can turn this town into hell and ashes,” the bearded rebel commando vowed. “We are the soldiers of Gen. Dudayev, ready to fulfill his every order.”
The latest deadly raid by angry Chechens appeared likely to set off another government crisis and herald a renewal of all-out war in Chechnya. At least 20,000 people have been killed already in 13 months of fighting.
After the Budennovsk incident, Kremlin leaders and the militants reached a partial peace accord July 30 calling for release of prisoners and disengagement.
But that cease-fire has been unraveling rapidly in the absence of a political agreement, as evidenced by last month’s brutal attack by federal forces on the rebel stronghold of Gudermes. At least 600 people died in that battle, federal authorities reported, about half of them civilians.
Raduyev, who is married to a Dudayev niece, comes from Gudermes.
As the severity of the Kizlyar drama became obvious Tuesday, Yeltsin summoned his ministers for defense, interior forces, intelligence and border control to the Kremlin and excoriated them for allowing “yet another blow” to Russian security.
Just back at work after two months of recuperation from a mild heart attack, Yeltsin raged against the laxity that allowed Dudayev’s forces to slip past thousands of federal troops.
“The power structures did not draw any lessons” from Budennovsk, Yeltsin thundered as the uniformed generals sat contritely across the table. “The border guards slept through everything!”
The Dudayev loyalists stormed Kizlyar before sunrise, first seizing and barricading a strategic bridge into the town, then jamming military and police radio networks to frustrate defenses. The gunmen then infiltrated the city hospital, taking patients in the maternity ward as hostages and padding their human shield with other civilians rounded up from nearby buildings.
Federal security forces, including armored units and paratroopers, encircled the rebels, and the tense standoff ensued.
Dudayev, in hiding since spring, has vowed to spread terror in Russia in retaliation for the destruction of the Chechen homeland.