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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechens Hijack Turkish Ship

OUTSIDE PERVOMAISKOYE, Dagestan -- As Russian forces pounded the tiny settlement of Pervomaiskoye for a second straight day Tuesday, Chechen rebels expanded their fight, seizing a Turkish passenger ship and hostages in the Turkish port of Trabzon and also taking hostages in Grozny.

The rebels hijacked a ship carrying 165 people, including 120 passengers and 45 crew members, in Trabzon and threatened to kill Russians aboard, Reuters quoted Turkey's Anatolia news agency as saying Tuesday.

They claimed to have killed one unidentified passenger and threatened to kill a Russian every 10 minutes if the ship did not sail. The reports could not immediately be confirmed, but the ship was later said to have left the port.

Anatolia said the gunmen shouted slogans demanding freedom for Chechnya and opened fire with automatic rifles.

At least one policeman was wounded in the attack, the Associated Press reported, also quoting Anatolia. The Turkish news agency quoted a Russian woman who escaped from the boat as saying there were many wounded.Anatolia said the vessel was scheduled to travel to the Russian port of Sochi, about 175 miles north of Trabzon.

Hospitals in Trabzon, on Turkey's Black Sea coast, were alerted to expect casualties and two ambulances arrived at the port, the the FSB said the captives had been seized from a district heating station in a Grozny suburb.

At the Pervomaiskoye seige, meanwhile, officials said Tuesday that 26 hostages had been freed, but no immediate end to the battle was in sight.

Field guns rained shells throughout the day into the village, although at a less intense pace than on Monday during the height of the barrage.

Rockets skimmed across the sky from helicopter gunships, and returning Russian soldiers said they had been fighting house to house inside the village. The night sky was lit by the flames from at least five burning houses.

The Interior Ministry in Moscow said 60 of the estimated 130 to 200 rebels had been killed, 15 seriously wounded and an unspecified number of others captured. Four Russian servicemen were said to have been killed and at least 20 wounded during two days of fighting.

Major General Alexander Mikhailov, spokesman for the FSB forces in charge of the operation, called the Russian losses surprisingly low, given the type of operation, but acknowledged that the going was difficult.

"The defenses are extremely well-organized," he said. "They have dug deep trenches that connect to the houses."

Russian commanders said there was no question now of negotiating with the Chechens, although the gunmen had freed some hostages with a message to tell the army to cease fire.

"They want to escape. We're not interested in playing games," Reuters quoted a Russian military spokesman as saying. "We are only interested in a white flag."

A Dagestan border guard said seven Chechen fighters had been captured.

Mikhailov said 26 of the 100-odd hostages had been freed. Others are believed to still be alive.

Having somehow escaped from the maelstrom, 11 of the freed hostages had spent the night caked in mud, without heat and with nowhere to sleep, while under the care of the Federal Security Service in a concrete building in the nearby village of Sovietskoye.

As the 11 men gathered at a water pump in the yard to try to clean up, guards pushed journalists away to prevent interviews. The former hostages clearly had been told not to speak to reporters.

Two of them were part of a television crew from the British company ITN, the only journalists to have been inside Pervomaiskoye during the fighting.

"Get it out that we are being held here, I have been detained with my cameraman," said Grigory Kuznetsov, a producer from ITN's Moscow office.

"The conditions are terrible," he said, adding that there was nowhere to sleep inside the building and it was extremely cold.

Asked later why the television crew was being held, FSB spokesman Mikhailov said the two Russians -- who were counted among the 26 hostages -- were being detained as "witnesses to a crime" and would be kept for "as long as necessary."

The other 15 hostages said to have been either freed by Russian troops or released by the gunmen or to have escaped in the confusion of battle, were being kept well away from reporters, and nothing could be confirmed about their condition. Some are women and children.

In the afternoon, the 11 freed hostages being held at Sovietskoye, all of them male, were put on a bus destined for Kizlyar. While they looked dirty and dishevelled as they were hustled through a solid police corridor, they did not seem unduly exhausted or traumatized by their experience.

It was in Kizlyar Jan. 9 that the gunmen had seized between 2,000 and 3,000 hostages in a hospital, before releasing most of them, negotiating safe-passage back to Chechnya, and being stopped at Pervomaiskoye.

Two of the freed hostages were from among the 37 Novosibirsk OMON troops who were captured by the Chechens last Wednesday and added to the hostages. They said that when they left, all 37 were still alive, contradicting a statement by Mikhailov on Monday that two of the special OMON troops had been executed by the Chechens on Sunday.

The Russian authorities had used those executions as part of their justification for attempting to take Pervomaiskoye by force, before any more executions could take place. On Tuesday, Mikhailov said the two executed men had not been OMON, but had been local policemen.

"I am staying here, my daughter is here," one reluctant man shouted as he was pushed onto the bus.

"Be a man," a Russian officer replied. "We all have families."

Another, older man, said through the bus window only that he had not been freed by soldiers, but rather had been released by the Chechen gunmen in order to negotiate.

The anxiety of the FSB to isolate the hostages may arise from the experience of Budyonnovsk last June, when there were numerous televised interviews with captives who had come to sympathize with their captors. Rather than tell of the horrors of their treatment at the hands of Shamil Basayev and his men, they attacked failed Russian attempts to storm the hospital there.That footage from Budyonnovsk had an enormous impact on public opinion, which remained divided over whether Basayev was terrorist or hero or both and was deeply resentful about the federal government's handling of the crisis.

Interviewed on Russian television Monday evening, some of the freed hostages said they had agreed to go with their captors when most of the more than 2,000 hostages were released in Kizlyar to prevent other members of their families from being taken.

"They held us at gunpoint, but to save the lives of the children and wives you had to become a hostage," one man said.

Asked how the rebels had treated the more than 100 hostages during the six-day ordeal, he shrugged his shoulders and gesticulated: "With machine guns, that's how."

Another, asked whether the rebels had threatened or abused them, answered irritably: "They did and they didn't."