Stakes higher than in 1995 hostage-taking

Chechen rebels occupied hospital, left with official promise of truce and talks

October 25, 2002|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

In an earlier desperate moment in their battle against Russia, nearly 150 Chechen rebels disguised as Russian police set off in a convoy for Moscow, determined to storm the Kremlin and bring a victorious end to their fight for independence.

They bribed soldiers to let them pass, but when policemen in the southern town of Budyonnovsk demanded a bribe they considered greedy, the Chechens opened fire and occupied a hospital, taking about 2,000 people hostage.

That was June 14, 1995. The siege lasted five days. More than 100 hostages died in bungled rescue attempts. When it was over, the rebels had won the promise of a truce, peace talks and safe passage back to Chechnya. The hostages were released; the Chechens went home.

The war finally ended a year later. By then, about 30,000 people had died in a conflict that began in December 1994.

Today, Russians say, the circumstances are very different. The Chechens who are holding about 600 hostages in a Moscow theater are not the same as those of 1995.

Some of the hostage-takers are women, astonishing considering that Chechnya, a republic within Russia, is Muslim. In general theirs is not a conservative Islam, and their fight is for nationhood rather than jihad. Women have jobs and go unveiled, but men are considered their protectors.

Now there they are, alongside the gun-wielding men, women described as young widows who lost their husbands at the hands of Russian soldiers and who might believe they have nothing left to live for.

In 1995, much less was at stake. Budyonnovsk was a small town on the fringes of the country, far from the center of power in Moscow.

When soldiers proved unable to solve the confrontation, Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin got on the phone with the rebels, led by Shamil Basayev, and negotiated in front of television cameras. He promised peace talks.

The rebels left in two buses, along with politicians and journalists who volunteered to accompany them in place of the hostages. Chernomyrdin gave them a refrigerated truck to transport 16 dead rebels.

Political fallout

His prestige was enhanced by solving the crisis. President Boris N. Yeltsin looked weak for having stayed out of it.

Today is different. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has everything at stake, his authority over Russia, his international credibility and even his honor.

The latest war, which began in September 1999, has destroyed much of what was left of Chechnya. Thousands more have died. Tens of thousands have fled. And the rebels have reached out to foreign Islamic groups - yesterday, the Arab television station Al-Jazeera broadcast an appeal from the hostage-takers in Moscow.

Putin has declared the Chechen war part of the international struggle against terrorism, asserting that the fighters have links to al-Qaida. Some months ago, he announced the war was over and called Russia victorious. Chechnya, he declared, was back to normal. The dead, the refugees, the guerrillas staging daily attacks, the closed schools and destroyed homes were somehow beside the point.

And now, Chechen rebels are in Moscow, right under the noses of what they call the power ministries - the Federal Security Bureau (successor to the KGB), Ministry of Internal Affairs and Ministry of Defense - not to mention the president in his grand Kremlin office.

Commentators on Russian television were saying yesterday that the audacious rebels had proved Putin's policies a failure. Newspapers were pointing out that, in fact, the Chechen war was not over. Putin, they said, found himself in a position where he could not negotiate. Neither could he afford to let 600 people die in a Moscow theater.

"Putin doesn't have a Chernomyrdin," Valery Shiryaev wrote in yesterday's Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

Putin himself will have to make the decisions, and he cannot surrender to terror in the heart of the country, he wrote. The FSB and the other ministries cannot allow themselves to be disgraced in the middle of Moscow, for all to see.

Movsar Barayev, the apparent leader of the rebels in the theater, is not Shamil Basayev, Shiryaev wrote, just as Putin the former KGB man is not Yeltsin, the born-again democrat.

"Movsar Barayev was mistaken," Shiryaev said. "A different path to peace is needed. And both sides must find it."

`Act will make it worse'

Alexei Samolyotev, a Russian television reporter who covered Budyonnovsk, was among those who eventually traded places with a hostage and accompanied Basayev and his rebels back to Chechnya.

"Basayev achieved his aim and became a moral leader of his people," Samolyotev said yesterday. "But this act has brought everything to a new level. Now there are no limits. And these people will not be heroes. Their act will only make it worse for Chechens."

But Russia has learned something from Budyonnovsk, he said. Then, troops stormed the hospital without attempting serious negotiations. Now, the authorities have allowed intermediaries to enter the theater.

At Budyonnovsk, Samolyotev found himself disappointed with both sides after he and other journalists took the place of hostages to assure their safe passage to Chechnya: "The Chechens let many innocent people die, and on the Russian side, no one ever said thank you to us for helping save lives."

Last night, on her television program, commentator Yulia Latynina put it this way:

"A few years ago, the people of Russia lent Putin their faith when he promised victory in Chechnya. Now he has to pay up, and it's his last chance."

Yelena Ilingina in The Sun's Moscow bureau contributed to this article.

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