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Chechen Raiders Refuse to Meet With Mediators

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Emboldened by the sudden retreat of Russian forces, Chechen gunmen holding 200 hostages refused even to meet with mediators Sunday after the Kremlin failed to deliver on an ultimatum to storm the dug-in terrorists.

The indecisiveness of the government in the sixth day of an already bloody hostage crisis also angered many of the 10,000 federal soldiers deployed around this southern village in the Dagestan republic and raised the prospect of a long and frustrating standoff.

Moscow had given the Chechen guerrillas until 10 a.m. Sunday to release their captives and give up their weapons or face a punishing assault by the forces that have them encircled.

But the deadline passed with no movement by the Chechen militants. As darkness fell across fields bristling with weapons, the Russians announced that they would give the Chechens one more night to think over their demands.

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The tension escalated after sundown with a report from a Russian Interior Ministry official that the rebels had opened fire on the troops, wounding four, a report quickly denied by other officials.

Earlier in the day, tanks and troops that had been closing in on Pervomayskaya pulled back. Many of the soldiers boarded buses to regather at checkpoints up to three miles away.

Interior Minister Anatoly S. Kulikov, head of the security forces deployed here and a former commander of Russian troops fighting in nearby Chechnya, was reported to be heading for the hostage scene to direct the operation.

But the summoning of Kulikov and the so-far-ineffectual intervention of Col. Gen. Mikhail I. Barsukov, the director of the Russian Federal Security Service, seemed only to add to the frustration of those officers trying to carry out a liberation scheme.

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“There are too many commanders involved, and none of them wants to take responsibility for what is going to happen,” one major groused after his unit was ordered back from the hostage scene.

Other officers deployed to the frozen fields of this Dagestani backwater argued that storming the Chechen nest was becoming only more difficult as time passed. They also said they expect to become scapegoats for any civilian deaths in the tense hostage standoff that is a consequence of the Kremlin’s bitter and unfinished war against secessionist Chechnya.

Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin sent troops to quash the republic’s independence bid in December 1994, but the deadly and protracted conflict has devastated his image among both Western statesmen and Russians weary of military adventures costing the lives of their sons.

The nearly vanquished Chechens loyal to fugitive President Dzhokar M. Dudayev have retaliated against the invasion by staging terrorist attacks in the Russian heartland--the latest in this autonomous republic that lies between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea.

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Hundreds of Chechen gunmen raided the northern Dagestani town of Kizlyar on Tuesday, grabbing as many as 3,000 hostages to use as leverage to force the federal government in Moscow to end its armed suppression of Chechnya. Local Dagestani authorities provided the terrorists with buses and promises of safe passage to their homeland in exchange for the captives’ freedom.

The Chechens left Kizlyar with more than 100 hostages as insurance and grabbed more after they were blocked by Russian troops in this border village within sight of Chechnya.

Captives were forced off the buses and billeted by the Chechen gunmen throughout the village to make a Russian strike more difficult and costly.

On Sunday, Chechen militants sympathetic to the hostage-holding band reportedly massed near the Chechen capital of Grozny. Russian authorities suggested that the fighters were planning a diversionary attack on a hospital or airfield in Grozny.

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Alexander Zdanovich, a spokesman for the Federal Security Service, told the Itar-Tass news agency that he expects a raid in Grozny. He said, however, that vulnerable sites are well-guarded. And he vowed that the “bandits will be mercilessly destroyed” if they launch an attack.

Zdanovich cited credible sources in describing the advance on Grozny. But Interior Ministry officials noted that Chechen militants have proved masters of disinformation.

Dagestani elders from the regional capital of Makhachkala have been mediating between the Chechen captors and Russian forces since the Dagestani standoff began but were rebuffed Sunday afternoon when they sought to propose a new plan for the hostages’ release.

“They would not even let us enter the village,” Magomed Khachilayev, an elder of the Dagestan People’s Council, said as he returned through the cordon that Russian troops have erected around the hostage scene. “I can no longer see any scenario for a positive resolution.”

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The Chechen gunmen have repeatedly threatened to begin shooting their captives unless Moscow allows them unhindered passage to Chechnya with the hostages along as human shields.

By refusing to meet with the Dagestani delegation, the Chechens under the command of guerrilla leader Salman Raduyev signaled their intention to hold out for a government retreat rather than give up either their weapons or their civilian pawns.

But the political costs of letting the Chechens escape after killing at least 20 people in Kizlyar and more than 150 in a similar incident in Budennovsk in June would be devastating for Yeltsin. He is already under fire from opponents for failing to root out the insurgents who have terrorized all of Russia.

Most of the Russian troops seem to expect an eventual order to attack the captives and have been chafing under the repeated delays.

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Power was cut to this village and the neighboring hamlet of Sovietskaya, one possible sign that the surrounding federal forces are still planning an assault.

One officer conceded it is unlikely such an assault could be carried out without civilian casualties but lamented the stalling as an opportunity for the Chechens to raise the stakes.

“It would have been a simple matter to strike the convoy when it was sitting on a roadside,” the officer said. “The longer we wait, the more the terrorists can do to raise the toll for civilians.”

Times staff writer Stephanie Simon in Moscow contributed to this report.

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