Having forced the Russian government to bow to their demands, Chechen guerrillas ended their six-day siege of terror here Monday, rolling out of this heartbroken little town in a bus convoy with about 150 hostages to guarantee them safe passage back to Chechnya.
Thousands of frantic townsfolk waited an agonizing 11 hours outside the sealed hospital compound where hundreds of hostages were held, while Chechen and Russian negotiators struggled to round up volunteers to travel in the convoy.
At last, seven buses with their windows shrouded in black blankets and one refrigerator truck carrying the corpses of Chechen dead began to rumble down the sun-baked street. Some of the hostages could be seen waving goodbye.
As more than 700 dirty, traumatized hostages poured out of the hospital compound into the arms of their sobbing relatives, Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin reassured his people that everything would be all right. He said that Russian forces would not attack the buses until the terrorists reached their unknown destination inside the rebel republic of Chechnya.
But after that, Chernomyrdin warned, “Mercy will not be shown to anyone.”
The convoy traveled south unimpeded until the border with the republic of Northern Ossetia, when the Chechens were told to change their route and head directly for Chechnya rather than take the short cut through the volatile Caucasus region.
Later, the buses stopped near Kurskaya, 50 miles south of here, when one of the vehicles broke down. Several Russian helicopter gunships circled low around the column during the stop, and Russian troops were seen digging in some two miles from the buses.
The convoy then moved. The rebels were believed to be heading for the small area in mountainous southeast Chechnya that is still held by the secessionist fighters who have been driven from the rest of the republic by a brutal six-month Russian military campaign.
Bowing to the guerrillas’ key demand, the Russian government Sunday ordered a halt to all military activity and bombing in Chechnya and opened peace talks Monday morning in the Chechen capital of Grozny and agreed to continue them Tuesday.
Russian authorities hastily arranged the Grozny talks - the first since May 25 - in line with Chechen demands. But Chernomyrdin stopped short of promising a pullout of Russian troops and told reporters there would be no concessions to Chechen demands for independence.
At least 140 people were killed in the six-day crisis, including 110 civilians. Many of the dead were hostages felled by Russian bullets when troops fired cannons from armored personnel carriers into the barricaded hospital.