Chechen rebels holding scores of hostages resisted a fierce Russian onslaught for a second day Tuesday as fellow rebel gunmen seized 30 more hostages in Chechnya and commandeered a Turkish ferryboat with 165 people on board.
Sporadic rocket and artillery attacks rained into the remote village of Pervomayskoye in an attempt to free the hostages but the military apparently was reluctant to wage an even more fierce assault that would threaten the lives of innocent civilians.
Up to six Russian soldiers have been killed in the two-day onslaught, including Col. Andrei Krestyaninov, a commander of an elite rapid reaction force leading the attack, the ItarTass news agency reported. More than 40 troops were wounded.
About 100 Chechen rebels have been killed, news agencies said.
While the standoff continued in this desolate rural patch of Dagestan, a mostly Muslim republic in southern Russia, Chechen gunmen made good a threat to attack Russians outside their native region by seizing a Black Sea ferryboat bound for Russia from Turkey with 120 passengers and a crew of 45.
Turkey’s Anatolia news agency said the hijackers in the port of Trabzon claimed to have killed one passenger and were threatening to kill all the Russians on the ship if it did not immediately depart. The vessel set sail late Tuesday for an undisclosed destination, the news agency said.
In Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, gunmen reportedly seized 30 workers at an electrical power plant. Alexander Zdanovich of the Federal Security Service said the workers were driven away in buses.
Negotiators from the International Red Cross and a Muslim association said the Chechens demanded either to exchange their Russian hostages for the Chechens under siege in Pervomayskoye, or a large, unspecified sum of cash, according to Russian radio reports.
The widening Chechen crisis posed a serious threat to President Boris Yeltsin and his chances for re-election in June if he decides to run for a second term.
Yeltsin’s approval ratings have plummeted since he sent Russian forces into Chechnya 13 months ago to put down an independence movement in the largely Muslim republic 1,000 miles south of Moscow. Wide public opposition to the war, which has cost at least 20,000 lives, is partly to blame for Yeltsin’s declining popular standing.