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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Bars Press From Kizlyar

OUTSIDE PERVOMAISKOYE, Southern Russia -- Dagestan Interior Ministry officers at a checkpoint outside Kizlyar greeted reporters returning from the site of Russia's latest Chechen hostage seizure with a smile.


"We got the shooting over with while you were under arrest," one said with a grin.


A day earlier, about 50 Russian and foreign reporters had been halted in the southern Russian region as they tried to enter Kizlyar, ensuring tight state control over the country's second major hostage crisis in less than seven months.


By keeping most reporters at a distance, Russia saved its population the trauma of last summer's hostage crisis in Budyonnovsk when television screens showed hospital patients pleading with Russian troops to hold their fire.


On the first, bloody day of the Kizlyar attack, only locally based journalists were allowed access to the hospital in Kizlyar where more than 200 rebels from a group known as "Lone Wolf" held about 2,000 people hostage.


The only television pictures from the Dagestani town that day were on Russia's two main state-controlled television channels.


They showed an interview with bearded rebel leader Salman Raduyev and hospital wards jammed with hostages.


Journalists from Russia's NTV independent television, known for hard-hitting coverage of the conflict in Chechnya, were among those reluctantly forced to kick their heels at a distant police roadblock as the drama unfolded.


The hostage crisis resembles the Budyonnovsk events last June in almost every respect, although this time Russian troops did not try to storm the hospital before the rebels were allowed to leave in a convoy of buses, taking with them about 160 of the hostages.


The separatists, traveling in a convoy of a dozen buses and trucks, were halted at Pervomaiskoye on Wednesday. They reached the village after releasing most of the 2,000 civilians they had herded into the hospital in Kizlyar the day before.


In Kizlyar, television viewers were also spared the sight of hostages waving white flags out of windows of hospital wards.


Media controls these days are looser than in Soviet times. Even at the height of the Chechnya war a year ago, reporters were not completely barred from the region.


But the Russian authorities made clear at the time that journalists were not welcome in Chechnya and put pressure on Russian media representatives who did not closely follow the official line.


Some reporters were shot at by Russian soldiers, often in panic or confusion. A number of journalists have also been killed, caught up in cross fire in Chechnya.


Controls on the Kizlyar hostage crisis mirrored the authorities' handling of events last month when the rebels captured Gudermes, Chechnya's second city, and occupied it for about 10 days.


Reporters were kept far removed from the fighting and reports of what was going on in the city were often contradictory and always difficult to verify.


Some reporters were barred from leaving Chechnya's capital, Grozny, when trying to reach Gudermes.


In Kizlyar, the Dagestani police kept the press away from the action but servicemen manning checkpoints were unhappy about their own dangerous frontline role.


Fourteen civilians, seven police and two servicemen died in Kizlyar, Interfax quoted the local Interior Ministry as saying. They included Interior Ministry Colonel Oleg Sobakar.


"The troops left it to us to deal with. They are keeping back. Lots of our people have been killed," said one officer.


The Chechens had only the local police to deal with -- troop reinforcements were as absent as journalists in the early hours of the assault. Gunmen went from house to house taking hostages.


"They banged on the door and asked us at gunpoint if there were any police here," said Lyubov Shadnina who lives opposite the hospital.


"They killed the deputy head of the police on his way to work in the morning and executed a young policeman in the hospital," she said.