. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pervomaiskoye Troops Show Grief, Outrage

Thousands lined up Monday to pay their respects to four officers who died in last week's operation to free the hostages in Dagestan, among them the dead soldiers' outraged comrades-in-arms who described themselves bitterly as "cannon fodder" in a botched operation.

Military uniforms predominated in the long line waiting to enter the small Palace of Culture where the four biers were displayed. Faces were grim in the narrow, dark room, and the soldiers filed by silently, squeezing between large wreaths propped against the wall and the growing mountains of flowers next to the bodies.

A brass band played softly in an anteroom, providing a background to the weeping of mourners. There was no conversation.

But outside the mood was bitter. were holding more than 100 hostages in the village of Pervomaiskoye in Dagestan. After five days of a tense standoff, the government sent in special forces to destroy the rebels and liberate the captives, but the Chechen resistance proved unexpectedly fierce.

"They used us as cannon fodder," said Sergei. "We had no food, no ammunition. We did not even have any communication with other units. There was no coordination. Half the time the federal troops were firing at us."

The young soldier said his unit had penetrated the town and had reached the mosque, where many of the hostages were reported to be held. But they received no backup. Their goal attained, they had no choice but to retreat.

"We know our job," he said angrily. "If only they had covered us."

Sergei's account was corroborated by the rebels themselves, many of whom managed to break through the blockade of Pervomaiskoye to reach the relative safety of Chechnya.

Salman Raduyev, the Chechen leader who commanded the Pervomaiskoye operation, escaped together with as many as 100 of his men and an undetermined number of hostages.

Maksud Ingulbayev, who told Reuters that he had been with Raduyev in Pervomaiskoye, gave a scathing account of the Russian forces' attack. "There was no coordination between aviation, artillery and other forces."

Retired general Alexander Lebed, presidential hopeful and bitter Yeltsin foe, ridiculed the government's handling of the hostage crisis at a news conference Monday.

"The Pervomaiskoye week is the anatomy of a national disgrace," he said.

"By American standards, losing 20 percent of the hostages in an operation is considered unsatisfactory. By Israeli standards, the loss of one hostage is unsatisfactory. It would be interesting to know what standards are operating here," Lebed said.

No figures on casualties among the hostages have yet been released.

Major General Alexander Mikhailov, spokesman for the Federal Security Service during the Pervomaiskoye operation, was fired Friday, the FSB press service reported. No details were available.

But NTV's influential television journalist Yevgeny Kiselyov called the ousted general "the scapegoat of Pervomaiskoye" in his Sunday evening news broadcast, "Itogi."

FSB chief General Mikhail Barsukov, who planned and headed the assault, defended the operation at a news conference Saturday. "Without resolute action to end the situation, the escalation of terrorism in the Northern Caucasus and in Russia as a whole would have been inevitable," he said.

The main objective, insisted Barsukov, had been "to destroy as many bandits as possible without threatening the lives of the hostages." In this, he added, the federal forces had succeeded.

Barsukov was defensive when asked how so many of the rebels slipped through the multiple rings of soldiers that were around Pervomaiskoye.

The federal troops had planned for a breakout, he said. In fact, they had deliberately stripped down the front line to create the illusion that the rebels would have any easy time of it.

"Naturally, there was only one thing we could not foresee," he said, "and that was the speed with which they could advance along the snowbound field. I saw gunmen taking off their shoes and running barefooted. I did not know that they would do that."