An explosive hostage drama that has already taken dozens of lives dragged through a second agonizing day in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan, but the heaviest casualties Wednesday were incurred by the Kremlin and what little is left of Russian security and pride.
President Boris N. Yeltsin deemed the tense standoff between Chechen gunmen and federal forces in the Caucasus region to be "under control" and flew off to Paris to attend today's memorial service for former French President Francois Mitterrand.
But the Chechen terrorist raid on the Dagestani town of Kizlyar was not so much resolved as relocated. After the gunmen released more than 2,000 hostages they had been holding at a maternity hospital early in the day, they fled with several dozen others grabbed for insurance of safe passage.
The hundreds of armed rebels who had slipped past federal forces to storm Kizlyar before dawn Tuesday had agreed to free most of the traumatized civilians in exchange for transportation to take them across about 40 miles of Russian-patrolled territory to the rebel redoubt of Gudermes.
However, the convoy of 11 buses and two trucks halted at the village of Pervomayskaya, a remote border post between Chechnya and Dagestan, after federal combat helicopters attacked the procession, the Interfax and Itar-Tass news agencies reported. Dagestani officials also said a bridge linking the two autonomous Russian regions over the Terek River had been blown up.
Federal Interior Ministry forces and armored columns surrounded the blocked convoy of Chechen gunmen and captive civilians, and the situation remained at an impasse beyond nightfall. The remaining number of hostages was reported as high as 160, including at least 30 women and the babies they had delivered at the hospital where they were taken from their beds.
Meanwhile, Yeltsin's legion of political opponents jumped at the fresh chance to denounce his policies and actions in Chechnya, where the Kremlin sent troops, tanks and air power in December 1994 to crush the region's bid for independence.
Retired army Gen. Alexander I. Lebed, who has declared his intent to run for the powerful presidency to succeed Yeltsin, recently deemed the current leadership incompetent to deal with a crisis of its own making.
"We see the agony of the rotten state machinery, the absolute inability of the ruling authorities to assess the situation in the country," Lebed said in a statement sent to Moscow media. "As long as the present government rules in Russia; as long as the might, authority, competence and coordination of power structures remain unrestored; as long as there exists no system of management in the state as a whole, there is no guarantee that such tragedies will not be endlessly repeated."
Ultranationalist rabble-rouser Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky proclaimed Russia "the most humiliated nation on the planet" and melodramatically apologized to his countrymen on his knees. His backers in the Liberal Democratic Party also used the moment to announce that Zhirinovsky would be their presidential candidate in the June election.
A delegation of the paramilitary Russian Union of Cossacks came to Moscow to call for formation of "self-defense units" to patrol the ethnically diverse and volatile Caucasus region. Among the ardently nationalist Cossacks, though, the armed patrols could quickly evolve into vigilante squads.
Kremlin officials mostly restrained themselves from vows to retaliate against the Chechen guerrillas while they still held civilians.
"We do not intend to resort to frontal attacks or to develop an eye-for-an-eye attitude," Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin told reporters here while promising that those responsible for the bloodshed will be punished.
Prior to his departure, Yeltsin denounced the Chechen gunmen as liars who had gone back on their word to free all civilians. But he insisted the government had developed a strategy for containing the crisis.
The more liberal analysts of Russia's protracted Chechen conflict fear mounting pressure for retribution against the rebels who have spread terror throughout the country could ignite another fierce bloodletting in a war that has already cost at least 20,000 lives.
Nationalists and militarists make it clear that is precisely what they want. Zhirinovsky called upon Yeltsin to "burn all rebel bases with napalm."
Chechen rebel leader Gen. Dzhokar M. Dudayev ratcheted up the tension with the Kremlin by warning that further terrorist actions would be taken to force Russia to accept his republic's proclaimed independence.
"One order from me is enough to launch or stop any Kizlyar-type operation," the fugitive guerrilla leader was quoted by news agencies reporting from Grozny, the Chechen capital, after he held a clandestine news conference.
Federal defense and security forces have announced that stricter precautions are being taken throughout Russia, and that security has been enhanced at sensitive sites such as nuclear power stations and chemical plants.
Police armed with submachine guns also stood guard at major enterprises and transportation centers around Moscow.
The Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper quoted unnamed sources in a report claiming that Yeltsin has ordered "liquidation of the leaders of the Chechen fighters." It named Dudayev, guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev and the commando who led the Kizlyar raid, Salman Raduyev, as the targets for assassination.
The Federal Security Service, a successor agency to the KGB, denied it had any such orders from the president.