Russian troops early today stormed the hospital where Chechen rebels held more than 1,000 hostages. Both sides suffered casualties in several hours of fighting until rebels reportedly agreed to stop shooting and release some of their captives.
The ITAR-Tass news agency said the rebels agreed to a cease-fire and to release women and children after negotiations with officials. The report gave no other details.
The sound of exploding grenades and machine gun fire could be heard from the hospital for hours after the early-morning raid. Russian officials said the rebels employed “barbarian tactics,” including using hostages as living shields as they fired on the commandos.
About 60 hostages - some wounded - were released in the first few minutes, Russian news agencies reported.
Government officials said some of the attacking troops and some rebels had been killed, but they gave no figures.
Russian officials talked to the gunmen by phone after the attack began, but the rebels refused to surrender, the officials said. The rebels had said they would not give up until Russia ends its war in Chechnya.
Interior Ministry officials said they acted because it was vital to free the hundreds of hostages, including children, being held in the hospital by about 50 gunmen.
A ministry spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the gunmen had become increasingly impulsive.
Heavily armed commandos from the Federal Security Service and the Interior Ministry swarmed into the hospital firing automatic weapons. Russian military helicopters soon joined the attack.
Terrified relatives of some of the hostages tried to enter the hospital to search for family members, but were held back by troops.
The rebels earlier had refused an offer of safe passage, insisting they would kill themselves and the hostages unless Russian troops leave Chechnya.
“Let them come and storm the place,” the rebels’ commander, Shamil Basayev, told reporters earlier in the hospital in Budyonnovsk, a green and usually sleepy southern city about 90 miles north of Chechnya.
“We are sick of watching our villages being bombed, and our women and children being killed,” he said, referring to Russia’s 6-month-old campaign to crush the separatists in Chechnya.
Basayev and about 200 heavily armed followers stormed Budyonnovsk Wednesday, shooting police who tried to stop them and rounding up civilians as hostages.
The terrorist action is the first time Chechen rebels have made good on threats to wage a guerrilla war against civilians in Russia.
Russian officials said about 100 people had been killed since Basayev’s group stormed the city. Basayev claimed to have executed five hostages.
Reporters allowed into the hospital Thursday night said there were about 2,000 hostages there. Basayev claimed to have 5,000; Russia’s Federal Security Service said there were no more than 1,000.
Earlier, Associated Press Television footage from inside the hospital showed people of all ages sitting terrified in the darkened corridors, guarded by gunmen in camouflage fatigues. Among them were many doctors, nurses and hospital patients.
“Help us!” some women cried. Screams rang out as gunfire rocked the corridors in an apparent exchange with Russian soldiers outside.
A funeral service for 36 of the victims was held at noon Friday while military helicopters flew overhead to ensure the mourners’ safety.
In Moscow, newspapers lashed out at the government for failing to prevent the bloody assault.