. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Defiant Raduyev Calls Mission 'Success'

EASTERN CHECHNYA -- Salman Raduyev, leader of the Chechen rebels whom Russia claimed to have crushed last week during the siege of Pervomaiskoye, was alive, well and unrepentant Monday in a hideout in the mountains of Chechnya.

Stepping into an underground bunker to greet some of the hostages he and his men had brought with them when they broke out of Pervomaiskoye, Raduyev embraced several warmly.

"You made it out alive, not even wounded," he said to one young boy of 15, pulling him to his chest.

"Now you are in an absolutely safe place," he said, gesturing at the thick walls and reinforced ceiling of the bunker.

"We feel sorrow for what happened," he told the 31 hostages. "But if we had not broken out of the Russian encirclement everyone would the Chechens wiped out, in the aftermath of the siege.

"We beat the strongest army of the biggest country in the world," he said in an interview in a private house not far from the bunker, his brown eyes suddenly staring and fierce. "Look how powerless the Russian army is."

After surviving three days of intense shelling and rocketing from Russian forces and repulsing numerous attempts by Russia's crack commando troops to storm their defenses, his fighters broke away and escaped into Chechnya.

"Seven times they stormed us and each time they were destroyed in flames," he said. "Look at me. I am here and alive. The whole world was told of the blockade, the strong circle around us, and apart from the 30 who died escaping we all got through."

How many gunmen and hostages were in Pervomaiskoye and how many survived has now become ammunition for a fierce propaganda war as to who "won" the hostage crisis in Dagestan.

According to Raduyev, he lost 40 men in all, 20 to 30 percent of the original force. Twenty more were wounded. Those figures differ wildly from still unconfirmed Russian statements that the bodies of 153 Chechen rebels were found in Pervomaiskoye after the storming.

The Chechens took many of their hostages with them and now say they hold 83 -- 28 of whom are Russian policemen. This reporter saw a total of 48 hostages being held in the mountains here, among them 16 OMON troops.

Raduyev said the civilian hostages would be released as early as Tuesday, but the policemen would be kept to exchange for Chechen prisoners.

"They have six of ours prisoner and the bodies of our boys too. We need to get them back, we will do an exchange, one for one," he said.

Raduyev defended his seizure of the hostages two weeks ago, saying that the original aim was to hit a military target, an aerodrome, in Kizlyar. "The plan was to get away but we did not manage."

Pursued by Russian forces who seemed to be expecting them, they moved into the town to the hospital. "In the branches of military doctrine, a sabotage raid is allowed and a unit can take hostages to protect itself from annihilation."

The Chechen chief of staff, Aslan Maskhadov, however, called Pervomaiskoye a "tragedy" in an interview Saturday. He said hostage-taking was not in the military plan and Raduyev would have to account for his actions.

Raduyev's fighters, known as the "Lone Wolf" group, were unrepentant. "Russia has brought terror to our people for over a year, we have a right to hit back in Russia," said Shamil, Raduyev's second-in-command for the operation, declining to give his last name.

"And we can do it again, we can go anywhere in Russia, to Astrakhan or Volgograd," he said.

Asked if he knew of a report that separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, had ordered his court martial, Raduyev looked surprised for a moment. "I am ready. I heard it, if Dudayev said it, then I am ready. If it means prison, I am ready. If execution, I am ready."

Wounded twice during the week, Raduyev said he narrowly escaped death from a mortar which killed his bodyguard next to him. He closed his eyes in weariness several times during the interview, apparently momentarily falling asleep. The fighters said they did not sleep or eat for a week. "The most painful thing was that we ran out of cigarettes," Shamil said.

"We have been given four to five days' rest and then we will be ready to fight. There is a war going on," Raduyev said. "Russia would do better to withdraw, they have nothing to show after a year of war and their costs have been high."