Chechen guerrillas today freed at least 3,000 hostages seized after the rebels invaded the Caucasus town of Kizlyar, Interfax news service reported.
The captives were freed after the government met demands for buses to take the Chechen gunmen back to their embattled homeland, the news agency reported from the scene.
Officials said the gunmen had taken 160 people with them on 11 buses. Officials of Dagestan, the republic where the raid took place, accompanied the rebels to Chechnya as a guarantee of safe passage, Dagestan’s Interior Ministry said.
Ministry spokesman Abdul Musayev told The Associated Press that at least six officials, including Cabinet members, and two unidentified journalists joined the rebels.
Hundreds of guerrillas entered Kizlyar on Tuesday, knocking out communications, attacking the airport and railway station and threatening to turn the quiet community into “hell and ashes.”
The gunmen shot at least two of the hostages to underscore demands for a Russian retreat, the Tass news agency reported. At least 20 others - policemen, civilians and some of the gunmen loyal to Chechen rebel leader Dhokhar M. Dudayev - died in the storming of the town that was a carbon copy of a bloody assault on the southern Russian town of Budennovsk last June. More than 150 people died in that hostage incident, the worst rebel reprisal since President Boris N. Yeltsin sent troops into Chechnya in December 1994.
A relative of Dudayev’s, Salman Raduyev, led the attack on Kizlyar.
Dudayev loyalists stormed Kizlyar before sunrise, first seizing and barricading a strategic bridge across the Talovka River into the town, then jamming military and police radio networks to frustrate defenses.
The gunmen then infiltrated the city hospital, taking patients in the maternity ward as hostages and padding their human shield with other civilians rounded up from nearby apartment buildings.
Federal security forces, including armored units and paratroopers, encircled the rebels and a tense standoff ensued.