Chechen Gunmen Release Last 150 Hostages, Flee Into Hills
Jun. 20, 1995
BUDYONNOVSK, Russia (AP) _ Chechen gunmen reached their homeland and released their final captives today, ending a weeklong hostage dilemma that embarrassed Russia's government and pushed Chechnya's secessionist war beyond its borders.
The rebels fled into the Caucasus Mountains, shadowed by Russian troops. There were no immediate reports of any action after the hostage release.
About 150 people, apparently all volunteers, had accompanied the rebels as human shields on a bus trip from the southern Russian city of Budyonnovsk to Chechnya after Russian authorities granted the gunmen free passage home.
The ITAR-Tass news agency and national television reported late today that the last hostages had been freed. They were returning on buses to the nearby republic of Dagestan, according to the Russian Interior Ministry.
The gunmen released 123 hostages, according to the NTV television network. It said three journalists volunteered to stay with the gunmen to report.
The gunmen had held up to 2,000 people hostage in a hospital in Budyonnovsk, demanding an end to Russia's war against their separatist republic. About 100 people died when the Chechens stormed the city last Wednesday, and dozens more were killed or wounded Saturday when Russian troops tried to free the hostages.
The Chechens released most hostages Monday after Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin agreed in nationally televised negotiations to declare a cease-fire in Chechnya, resume peace talks and grant the gunmen safe passage.
The final release at dusk today _ about 8:30 p.m. _ occurred near Vedeno, a town in the rebel-controlled southern mountains where the gunmen had said they planned to escape, according to a report on NTV television.
ITAR-Tass reported the gunmen were headed for Dargo, a nearby village. Interior Ministry officials said earlier that troops were shadowing the convoy to prevent the rebels' escape.
In past hostage incidents, Russian authorities have capitulated to terrorists' demands only to attack them later.
Earlier, the Chechens had sent scout cars ahead of the convoy into Chechnya and apparently did not like what they saw. They stopped their convoy before reaching the border and demanded new promises of safe passage, said Vladimir Vasilyev of the Interior Ministry in Moscow.
ITAR-Tass said the government provided fresh guarantees, but Moscow would not confirm the report.
The buses had pulled out of Budyonnovsk with at least 73 Chechen rebels, regional officials said. News reports had put the number of volunteers who went along at about 150. The volunteers included local officials, journalists and parliament members.
Chechnya is about 90 miles by air from Budyonnovsk. But the convoy was stopped by troops at the border of North Ossetia, which borders Chechnya, and told to take a 120-mile route through the Russian republic of Dagestan, ITAR-Tass said. The buses then doubled back, reaching Dagestan after nine hours on winding steppe backroads.
After the gunmen left the hospital in Budyonnovsk, hundreds of hostages emerged to waiting crowds of relatives and friends. Amid tearful reunions, loud arguments broke out among some former hostages who were sympathetic to the Chechens, and other residents angered by the Chechens' actions.
``The Chechens treated us well,'' said 33-year-old pediatrician Natalya Serebryakova.
``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.''
About 50 bodies of civilians were inside the hospital, local officials said Monday.
Chernomyrdin met in the Kremlin with President Boris Yeltsin today to discuss the crisis.
In the Chechen capital, Grozny, peace talks agreed to during the standoff resumed today between a high-level Russian delegation and a group sent by Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev. Vyacheslav Mikhailov, Russia's first deputy minister on ethnic affairs, told ITAR-Tass that the first day of talks Monday went well.
The hostage-taking was the first major rebel attack outside of Chechnya. Russian troops moved into Chechnya in December to put down Dudayev's secessionist regime. Thousands have been killed in fighting.