Chechen Rebels, Volunteer Hostages Leave Aboard Buses
BUDYONNOVSK, Russia (AP) _ Chechen rebels and more than 100 people acting as their human shields rode a slow convoy of buses down winding steppe backroads Monday, the delicate endgame of a siege in which the rebels grabbed 1,500 hostages and the government caved in to their demands.
The buses, most of their curtains drawn, were joined by police cars, an ambulance and a refrigerator truck carrying the bodies of Chechens killed in Russian raids on the hospital.
The Chechens had been holed up in the hospital since they invaded Budyonnovsk in southern Russia on Wednesday to demand an end to Russia’s war against their separatist republic.
The rebels released most of the hostages after Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin agreed Sunday to declare a cease-fire in Chechnya, resume peace talks and give the gunmen safe passage to their homeland. But there were reports of continued fighting in Chechnya.
After nine hours on the road, the seven red-and-white buses were nearing Russia’s republic of Daghestan after being sent on a circuitous route through remote backcountry. They remained far closer to Budyonnovsk than to Chechnya, 90 miles to the south.
The buses had been stopped by troops a few hours into the journey at the border of North Ossetia, which borders Chechnya, and told to take a different, longer route through Daghestan, the ITAR-Tass news agency said. The road then wound in the opposite direction from Chechnya.
One bus developed engine trouble, and authorities prepared a tank of motor oil which the gunmen picked up along the way, ITAR-Tass said.
After the buses pulled away from the hospital early Monday, hundreds of hostages emerged to waiting crowds of relatives and friends. Loud arguments soon broke out between many former hostages who were sympathetic to the Chechens and angry residents who recalled the Chechens’ storming of the city in which more than 100 people were killed.
``The Chechens treated us well,″ said one former hostage, 33-year-old pediatrician Natalya Serebryakova, who wore a torn and dirty white doctor’s smock.
``If the Chechens promised something, they did it. When (the Russians) started to fire shells ... into a maternity ward, the Chechens jumped on the bed and covered infants with their own bodies,″ she said.
The government launched two attacks Saturday on the hospital but failed to free the hostages, and those inside said dozens were killed or wounded. The rebels freed more than 400 hostages, mostly women and children, over the weekend as talks continued with the government.
About 50 bodies of civilians killed during the six-day drama were left behind in the hospital, local officials said.
Authorities said troops found and defused three mines in the hospital, ITAR-Tass said.
During the negotiations, Chechen commander Shamil Basayev had demanded ``volunteers″ to assure safe passage from the hospital.
``All hostages must be left in the hospital,″ Chernomyrdin told Basayev by telephone at one point. ``The volunteers _ that is another story.″
According to Alexander Korobeinikov of the regional government, there were at least 73 Chechen rebels on the buses and 114 volunteers, including local officials, parliament members, journalists and other civilians. News reports put the number of volunteers at about 150.
``The term `hostage’ ceases to exist the moment you board the bus,″ said Vladimir Vorozhtsov, an Interior Ministry spokesman. ``From then on, you are voluntarily accompanying the terrorists.″
Russian soldiers lined the route out of Budyonnovsk. Several cars and vans followed the convoy, presumably carrying relatives of the volunteers, authorities said.
In past hostage incidents, Russian authorities have capitulated to terrorists’ demands, only to attack later, often with disastrous results.
In response to the Chechens’ demands, the Russian military declared a cease-fire Sunday night and high-level peace talks began early Monday in the Chechen capital, Grozny.
But Russian soldiers repulsed two rebel attacks late Sunday and early Monday, and dozens of rebels and four Russians were killed in the skirmishes, ITAR-Tass reported.
Peace talks ended inconclusively Monday and more talks were scheduled for Tuesday.
Chernomyrdin agreed to a number of the rebels’ demands, although he stopped short of promising a withdrawal of troops from Chechnya.
The prime minister’s concessions appeared in sharp contrast to statements by President Boris Yeltsin, who said he authorized the use of force in Budyonnovsk before flying to the Group of Seven summit in Canada on Friday. Yeltsin was back at work in the Kremlin on Monday, a spokesman said.
Previous negotiations and cease-fires in the 6-month-old war have broken down quickly.
The attack on Budyonnovsk was the first major rebel attack outside of Chechnya. Russian troops moved into Chechnya in December to put down President Dzhokhar Dudayev’s secessionist regime. Thousands have been killed in fighting.
Budyonnovsk, a city of 54,000 people, is in the steppes about 960 miles south of Moscow. The rebels said they had been planning to attack Moscow, but got only as far as Budyonnovsk.