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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Siege Ends With 82 Freed: Yeltsin

The guns around Pervomaiskoye fell silent and the siege ended Thursday, with President Boris Yeltsin declaring that the operation had incurred "minimal losses," with most of the hostages saved and most of the Chechen gunmen killed.

The battle ended after fierce fighting during the night, when the gunmen had attempted to break through the Russian lines. Some made it through, but the Russian Interior Ministry said the bodies of 153 gunmen had been recovered.

The president said 82 hostages had been freed, while 18 were missing, "but we presume that they are still alive." He said nothing of casualties among the hostages, and his figures seemed to be the subject of uncertainty even among his staff.

"We have taught [rebel leader Dzhokhar] Dudayev a tough lesson," Yeltsin said in an interview broadcast on all major television channels Thursday evening.

Yeltsin's announcement contrasted sharply with statements by Russian commanders in the field Wednesday, who said most of the captives were dead, executed by the rebels.

Until Thursday evening, forces would spend the next two days combing Pervomaiskoye for survivors, he added.

However, there were reports that rebel leader Salman Raduyev had escaped, along with some of his band.

Yeltsin said 26 Russian soldiers had been killed and two wounded, while Interfax quoted an Interior Ministry source as putting the number of Russians wounded at 93.

The president spoke after a meeting with the chief of the Federal Security Service, Mikhail Barsukov, who headed what official reports called "the operation to liberate the hostages."

In a later statement, the president emphasized that the behavior of the gunmen had left him with no choice but to use force, and accused the rebels of trying to spread the Chechen war throughout the North Caucasus. "This will never happen!" the statement said.

After a five-day standoff in Pervomaiskoye, a tiny settlement on the border between Chechnya and Dagestan where Chechen rebels estimated to number anywhere from 130 to 250 were holed up with their hostages, special forces attacked Monday.

For three days they tried unsuccessfully to dislodge the rebels, after which the government decided on an overpowering blow to crush the opposition.

Stating that all hope of freeing the hostages was gone, federal forces launched a massive operation Thursday to effectively annihilate the town using Grad missile launchers.

The entire operation had been seen as a humiliation for the Russians, but the president and the security chief moved to dispel that notion Thursday.

"When I said that the operation would take one day, I did not know that Dudayev had a fortified base under the ground there," he said. "There were mountains of weapons, underground passageways between houses, special constructions, military technology. We did not know that behind those clay houses, those southern-type clay houses, there was a Dudayev base."

The president added that Russia should continue to strike "fortified Dudayev bases, where there is no civilian population, to end terrorism on Russian soil."

Barsukov gave the Chechens grudging respect in a separate interview, calling them "not the worst warriors," and conceding they had fought well and fanatically for their ideas.

The security chief also insisted that the operation had been a success. "We got off cheaply," he said, explaining that about 90 hostages had been liberated, while 15 "who we think were accomplices instead of hostages" had escaped with some of the terrorists.

Documents found on some of the dead rebels indicated they were mercenaries from Syria and Egypt, Russian television reported Barsukov as saying. That claim was corroborated to The Moscow Times on Thursday by one of the escaped hostages.

Russia's Interior Ministry said the bodies of 153 rebels had been found in the wreckage of Pervomaiskoye, according to Interfax. The spokesman also said that 28 rebels had been captured, and that Pervomaiskoye was now under the full control of Russian forces.

There was no sign of Raduyev, the leader of the band, known as "Lone Wolf," that was holding the hostages. Barsukov told reporters it was possible the Chechen leader had escaped in the early hours of Thursday morning when a group of rebels attempted to break out of Pervomaiskoye.

They were assisted by dozens of Chechen fighters who had crossed the border during the night and attacked the federal troops from the nearby village of Sovietskoye. Official reports, however, claimed that none of the rebels had been able to leave Pervomaiskoye.

Barsukov's assessment of the results of the battle contrasted starkly with eyewitness accounts.

A harrowing description of the siege, published in Thursday's daily Izvestia, recounted scenes of chaos and confusion that made a mockery of officials' earlier claims that the federal forces were working "like jewelers" -- striking only at rebels and sparing hostages.

"The village turned into ruins before our eyes. Calling this an operation to save the hostages is the height of cynicism," wrote Valery Yakov, who spent several days on the outskirts of Pervomaiskoye observing the battle with the troops. "Those who remain alive are not those who were supposedly being saved, but those who were lucky enough to survive."

A group of gunmen calling for an end to the Russian siege of Pervomaiskoye seized the passenger ship Avrasya on Tuesday night, threatening to kill the Russian passengers unless Raduyev and his band were allowed to go free.

As of Thursday evening the ship was sailing toward Istanbul, while Turkish officials denied earlier reports that the head of the intelligence service had struck a deal with the hijackers to release the hostages.

Yeltsin has offered the help of his special forces to Turkish authorities, who are coping with a hostage crisis of their own, Interfax reported.