Tales of terror, kindness by captors

 

HOSTAGES released by Chechen rebels in this Dagestani border town spent a terrifying 24 hours agonising over their fate despite being treated well by their captors, according to witnesses.

The 2,000 civilians seized on Tuesday, most of whom were released early yesterday before the rebel Chechens left Kizlyar in buses, spoke of flying bullets and menacing gunmen, but also of the reassuring and even gentle way they were treated by their Chechen captors.

"When they took me with the other hostages into the hospital I thought I would never get out alive," said Mr Mogamed Rasulov, who was shattered but still lucid about the ordeal.

Mr Rasulov explained how he and his wife had been awakened by Chechen gunmen at around 5 a.m. on Tuesday and ordered, along with hundreds of other terrified citizens of Kizlyar, to assemble in the hospital.

"I was sleeping with my wife when they knocked loudly at the door," Mr Rasulov said. "There were three gunmen who told us to follow them, threatening to shoot."

Elsewhere in the small town about 10 km from the border with Chechnya, the 300 strong commando unit was rounding up 2,000 other bewildered souls and directing them to the hospital, following their dawn raid on the town.

"It was a nightmare. I couldn't stop thinking about Budennovsk," Mr Rasulov's wife Raisa said, referring to a similar hostage crisis in the southern Russian town in June last year, when Chechen separatists seized around 1,500 civilians before agreeing a negotiated settlement.

In both hostage incidents, the Chechens have demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from the small, separatist minded Caucasus republic as a prerequisite to releasing the detained thousands.

Russian forces have waged a brutal 13 month conflict against Chechen rebels in the Muslim republic in a bid to bring a three year separatist movement to heel.

But despite the apparent uncompromising stance of the separatist hostage takers, Mr Rasulov said his captors in Kizlyar were reassuring and even friendly.

"All of a sudden, the Chechens told us they only wanted Russian troops to leave Chechnya," he said. "They didn't want to kill us. They were reassuring, even gentle, bringing us something to eat and giving cigarettes to the men and milk for the babies.

All witnesses said the most frightening hours of their ordeal were endured on Tuesday morning.

"The Chechens shot at anything which approached the hospital, civilians or security forces," said Mr Nabe Ismailov (23), pointing out the broken windows at the hospital and water pipes riddled with bullet holes.

But he added that the rebels only opened fire in response to volleys of rounds aimed at the hospital by Dagestani and Russian soldiers surrounding the building.

"That was when I was most terrified," said Mrs Raisa Rasulova. "I threw myself on the ground, people were screaming, crying. Others went to the windows to call on the Russians to stop shooting." But she added that the Chechen gunmen had only aimed shots at the surrounding forces. "Not once did I see a hostage targeted," she said.

The Russian interior ministry said earlier yesterday that 13 Chechens, 13 civilians and seven policemen were killed in the Kizlyar face off. Twelve other security troops were injured in the incident.

Shooting eventually gave way to negotiating, with the Dagestani leader, Mr Magamed Ali Magomedov, presiding over hours of talks with the commando leaders which resulted in the majority of hostages being released at 7 a.m. yesterday.

Despite their ordeal, and the fact that the gunmen are still holding around 160 "volunteer" hostages from the original 2,000 in 11 buses at nearby Pervomaiskaya, the Rasulovs found it hard to condemn unequivocally their captors.

"In one sense they are right to try and do something to end the war," Mr Rasulov said.