Chechen troops Saturday beat back Russia’s attempts to storm the rural hospital where they held hundreds of men, women and children hostage for a fourth day in a building left charred and smoking from Russian artillery attacks.
Fighting interrupted by truces continued early this morning, when Russian news agencies reported that Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and rebel commander Shamil Basayev had reached a tentative agreement by telephone to end the standoff. Talks on the details were to take place later today.
Shortly after Saturday’s fighting started about 5 a.m., female hostages cried “Stop shooting! Don’t shoot!” from open hospital windows. Some of them draped white bedsheets as a signal that civilian prisoners were in the line of fire.
“They organized a chorus and shouted all together, ‘Don’t shoot,”’ said Leonid Shulga, who lives across the street.
But Russia’s elite Alpha Group commandos and regular troops backed by helicopters maintained their assault for about four hours Saturday morning, managing to take over the first floor of the hospital.
The Russians freed 60 hostages, and the Chechens then released more than 160 others, according to NTV, the independent Russian television channel.
Lines of dazed young women, some in the late stages of pregnancy and others carrying swaddled newborns, walked out in their nightgowns into brilliant sunshine. Some hostages came out crying and shouting at the Russians that they were exterminating their own people.
“I am praying. I am asking. Stop fighting,” cried one elderly woman who fell to the ground. “Those are ours in there. There are people who are not at fault. They are dying for nothing.”
NTV said 101 people were killed in the morning fighting.
“They said more women died from Russian bullets than from the Chechens’,” said Dr. Viktor D. Nikitayev, 48, who examined the freed women Saturday.
After a cease-fire of several hours for negotiations yielded no agreement, the Russians resumed their attack.
More talks are expected, but the Chechen gunmen who raided this bucolic south Russian town on Wednesday have not modified demands that Russian troops withdraw from the breakaway Chechen republic and leaders open negotiations with its president, Dzhokhar Dudayev.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin, visiting the Western economic summit in Canada, claimed that Dudayev had sought and accepted asylum in Turkey. But rebel leaders denied that, and U.S. and Turkish officials could not confirm it.
Russian government spokesmen accused the Chechens of “barbaric” tactics in Saturday fighting, firing from behind hostages they placed at windows as human shields.
“They would post two women in a doorway and shoot out from behind their back, or they would put an automatic rifle between a woman’s legs and shoot from there,” said Sergei Kuznetsov, a photographer who accompanied the Russian Alpha troops and other special forces on the aborted first raid.
But most hostages said the Chechens treated them solicitously, even sharing their last bits of bread.
Accurate figures on the total number held captive and the total numbers killed since the Chechens arrived Wednesday in a blaze of grenade explosions and automatic weapons fire were not available.
But militiamen who were carting stretchers of dry ice to Banya No. 1, which they had converted to a temporary morgue, said 91 dead Russians and 10 Chechens were inside the stench-filled bath house. None of the bodies was from Saturday’s violence, they said.
Frantic relatives of hostages wailed in the streets of the once pleasant town of 100,000 people, filled with trees and one-story houses around courtyards rather than the huge apartment blocks that typify Soviet cities.
Some townspeople had tried unsuccessfully to break past soldiers into the hospital to find family members, and others even blocked the road to stop tanks or truckloads of soldiers from reaching the hospital.
Exactly who gave the order to storm the hospital remained an open question Saturday night. No one claimed responsibility.