Saying there was little hope left of saving any hostages, Russian forces unleashed a blizzard of rockets Wednesday on the tiny village they have been unable to take in three days of fighting with Chechen rebels.
One hostage - an old man whose name was not given - escaped from the village after dark Wednesday night and said he did not see anyone alive, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
The assault came despite new terrorist threats by Chechen sympathizers, including gunmen who hijacked a Black Sea ferry in Turkey carrying 200 people and said they would blow it up unless the Russians stopped the battle at Pervomayskaya.
In the blowing snow, hundreds of weary Russian troops pulled back Wednesday on the steppes around the ruined village, allowing their countrymen to fire off volley after volley from Grad rocket-launchers. Pervomayskaya’s cluster of small buildings was also rocketed by helicopter gunships and struck by rounds of artillery shells.
Heavy machine-gun fire in the late afternoon indicated that the Chechens were still resisting. The last Russian rocket attack came shortly after 8 p.m., ITAR-Tass said.
Reporters were expelled by Russian military authorities from Pervomayskaya and neighboring villages earlier Wednesday. The region, in the republic of Dagestan, is just across the border from Chechnya.
The Russians began storming the village Monday, breaking a five-day standoff and refusing the Chechens’ demands for safe passage to their homeland. At the time, authorities said they resorted to force because the gunmen were killing hostages - a charge denied by separatist leaders.
On Wednesday, Russian officials again claimed they escalated the conflict because hostages were being killed. Maj. Gen. Alexander Mikhailov, a spokesman for the Federal Security Service, said the gunmen planned to execute the captives and try to escape.
Asked about the hostages, he said, “We have little hope for them.”
The group that seized the ferry Tuesday in Trabzon, Turkey, claimed allegiance to Chechen commander Shamil Basayev, a separatist hero. The ship had been headed to Sochi, Russia, and many on board were believed to be Russians.
“This is a warning to Yeltsin,” their leader told independent Turkish television Channel D, referring to Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
Alaaddin Yuksel, governor of Trabzon, identified the ringleader as Muhammed Tokcan, a Turk who has fought with Chechen rebels. He said the ferry carried 144 passengers and 55 crew. Tokcan reportedly told Turkish officials the ferry was heading to Istanbul, and threatened to blow it up in the Bosporus strait.