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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Scenes From a Hospital's Corridors of Carnage

BUDYONNOVSK, Southern Russia -- The outside of the town hospital is charred, white sheets still hanging from windows, but the scene inside brings home the horror of the world's worst hostage crisis.


Thick congealed pools of blood mar the main stairwell. Broken glass, rubble and ammunition shells lie thick on the floor.


The smell of hospital disinfectant mingles with body sweat, urine, brick dust and cordite.


Glass bottles, tin cans and jars of food, some half eaten, spoons still sticking out of them, litter the wards and passages. Mattresses and sheets are left where people slept amid a shambles of smashed furniture, bloody clothes, slop buckets and trays of hospital instruments.


Tables, cupboards and doors, wrenched from their hinges, stand against the windows where Kalashnikov and machine-gun shell casings cover the floor.


The fiercest fighting in Saturday's Russian Army attack on Chechen rebels, who took over the hospital and seized more than 1,200 hostages June 14, went on in the northwest wing where the top two floors are gutted. Deep holes gouged in the inside walls show where machine-gun fire raked the building. A dentist's chair, shot clean through the back, stands alone amid the charred ashes.


In the hospital's southwest wing, medical workers were pushing out incubators Wednesday night from the second-floor maternity ward where every room was scarred with deep pits from heavy gunfire.


Just above, an interior wall had buckled where a series of heavy incoming missiles had blown through the wing, leaving gaping holes in the outer and side walls.


A direct hit at the end of the wing had gutted four patient rooms with fire but could not hide the sticky pools of blood next to the black scorch marks that were evidence of a grenade explosion.


The back wing of the hospital which took the brunt of the assault by crack "Alpha" paratroopers remains relatively unscathed. Grenades left their telltale spattering of pockmarks and scorches in every north-facing room along the second and third floors, but other rooms escaped with just smashed windows.


It is there that rebel commander Shamil Basayev took over the office of the deputy chief surgeon and conducted negotiations with Duma deputy and former presidential human-rights commissioner Sergei Kovalyov. It is the one office that remains tidy, but for the words scrawled in red on the wall "Yeltsin is a murderer."


In another room, "A Free Chechnya or Death. Allahu Akbar," is daubed in red iodine on the white tiles, signed just with the letter "Z." Hospital workers, looking for souvenirs, tugged at bullets wedged fast in the brick wall below it.


The Alpha Group stormed the building with 27 men, attacking from both sides of the back wing while Russians positions pounded the front with cannon and machine-gun fire, according to a lieutenant of the Interior Ministry troops, who only gave his name as Vladimir. He said that on Tuesday and Wednesday he had helped clear some of the 30 mines laid in the basement and the approaches to the main building.


Three Alpha members were killed, including Major V.V. Solovov, cut down just meters from where he dropped over a wall into the hospital grounds. A small cardboard sign, draped with dying roses, is tacked to a tree where he fell. "Here died, fulfilling his duty, the member of Group 'A,' Major V. V. Solovov," it reads.


The other two men were cut down close to the main building after a 100-meter dash across the grass.


Fifteen other Alpha men were injured, unit commander Alexander Gusev told Interfax. According to local doctors who treated 20 military casualties Saturday morning, two Alpha men were also seriously wounded in the dawn raid.


But according to Vladimir, Alpha did succeed in taking the ground floor and basement of the main building. They were ordered to pull out Saturday evening, Vladimir said, by the local authorities. They, like he, felt they should have been allowed to continue the assault, he said.


Accounts from hostages in the basement of the main building seem to suggest that if Alpha troops took it, they only came in after the Chechens had moved all hostages upstairs.


Vasily Rynchenko, 66, was held hostage for three nights in the basement with Chechen forces who fired out of heavily barricaded windows which gave them a view of any attacker.


Big pools of blood on the ground-floor stairwell showed there had been heavy casualties between the basement and the stairs to the second floor. Heavy hospital machinery had been pulled across the stairs, blocking the way up.


Vladimir denied that there had been heavy civilian casualties in the storming, saying the heavy shelling had been aimed at a part of the building where only Chechen fighters were.


But casualty figures suggest otherwise. The morgue took in 47 dead as a result of the Chechen attack on Budyonnovsk on June 14. But the final toll for the five-day siege has reached 121, the Stavropol regional prosecutor said outside the hospital Wednesday evening. That would indicate that most of the deaths occurred Saturday in the Russian attack.


Hostages and doctors in the hospital tell of Chechens using hostages as human shields causing them to be killed by incoming Russian fire during the attack. A doctor at the hospital, Pavel Chubov, 28, described several dead brought to him Saturday as undoubtedly being killed by Russian sniper fire.


The official death toll of 121 does not include the three Alpha men nor the estimated 25 Chechen dead, according to the prosecutor, who declined to be identified.


The last to be added to the official count were three pilots, one policeman and one woman, whose bodies were retrieved from the hospital Tuesday, the prosecutor said.


The pilots, from the local air base, were taken hostage in the street June 14. Their bodies were found where they were executed by the Chechen gunmen in the hospital grounds, Vladimir said.


He pointed to the spot where thick blood had seeped among the rose bushes, in full bloom in the hospital garden. Above, swallows wheeled through the sky against a blood red sunset.