A deadly chess game with human pawns Chechens scatter hostages as Russians ponder attack

January 13, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

PERVOMAYSKAYA, Russia -- Chechen gunmen played a harrowing game of cat and mouse with their swelling store of hostages yesterday, scattering human pawns across this armor-encircled village to raise the stakes for Russian government forces pondering an all-out attack.

The five-day standoff between the Kremlin and gunmen ready to die for a free Chechnya seemed frozen by both icy winds and hesitation, with neither side giving way in a stare-down that appeared to leave few alternatives for settlement aside from bloodletting.

Helicopter gunships roared over icy fields and vineyards as Russian troops in tanks and armored personnel carriers widened their cordon around Pervomayskaya, evacuating women and children from nearby villages in a sign of impending confrontation.

But the nearly 300 Chechen militants, cornered with their captives in this border post just a few miles east of their homeland, scrambled to parry an assault.

The Chechens -- who fled the scene of one hostage crisis Wednesday only to create another -- commandeered houses for the hostages they had herded here in buses, effectively enlarging their human shield to include scores from this farm village of 900.

Russian troops said they believed the Chechens had booby-trapped the houses with mines and artillery shells.

The maneuvers expanded the target that Russian forces had been preparing to hit and made it unlikely that any frontal attack could be mounted without considerable civilian losses.

"It's much more difficult to storm a town than it is to storm a bus," said a frustrated Gen. Alexander G. Mikhailov, spokesman for the Federal Security Service and one of the Moscow officials dispatched to deal with the crisis.

"The relocation doesn't make it harder for us to control the situation, but it makes it harder to free the hostages."

Sporadic negotiations led by officials of the neighboring republic of Dagestan were reported by local news media to have won the release of as many as 12 hostages, but no liberated captives were visible from the snow-swept barricades east of the village.

Meanwhile, thousands of angry Dagestanis massed around checkpoints to rail against what they see as Chechen betrayal. nTC Dagestan, an autonomous Russian region between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea, has taken in tens of thousands of Chechen refugees fleeing the horror and homelessness inflicted by 13 months of fighting.

Chechens disgusted with the rebels' actions reportedly gathered outside the government building in their capital, Grozny, to sign up as replacement hostages. The Itar-Tass news agency reported that the volunteers "say they want to cleanse the Chechen nation of the disgrace brought upon it by the [militants'] act of terrorism."

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