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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Some Rebels Escape Under Cover of Night

KEMSI YURT, Southern Russia -- An unknown number of Chechen rebels broke out through Russian troops surrounding them in the village of Pervomaiskoye in the early hours of Thursday morning, escaping towards Chechnya as other fighters staged a diversion behind the federal lines.

Just hours after federal commando units pulled out of the village and blanket fire was started with Grad missiles -- an acknowledgement that they had failed to defeat the rebels and rescue the remaining 70-odd hostages -- the Chechens apparently made a successful break for freedom, carrying their dead with them.

"I think they got away," said Ali Aliyev, 42, a hostage now lying in the hospital in the town of Aksai, some 10 kilometers from Pervomaiskoye. "Maybe some smertniki stayed," he said, describing the Chechen fighters who vow to fight to the had been recovered, but this could not be independently confirmed.

People in this ethnically Chechen village close to the fighting were jubilant. They said their contacts across the border in Chechnya had told them a large group of the fighters had gotten away.

Aliyev was one of a group of hostages made to carry four wounded Chechens through the village and across the fields into Chechnya, under a barrage of gun and rocket fire.

"We saw the flashes of firing on all sides," he said. "We were running. There was this horrendous noise, and I felt a blow on my leg."

The Chechen fighters kept going. "They took their wounded with them. I pretended to be dead, otherwise I would not be here," he said.

Wounded by shrapnel in the thigh, Aliyev lay in the snow on the battlefield until daylight, when Russian soldiers picked him up.

The news that federal forces planned to end the hostage crisis with a bombardment from Grad missile launchers was the deciding factor in the rebel decision to attempt to escape, he said.

"When they learned of the Grad attack, they decided to go, to break through the Russian lines," he said, adding that this was at 3 a.m. Thursday.

At that exact time that the Chechens staged an attack on the village of Sovietskoye, three kilometers southwest of Pervomaiskoye, just behind which Russian guns and rocket launchers were ranged in the fields.

Some 25 fighters burst into Lav Zagalov's house on the edge of the village, overlooking Russian positions, at 2 a.m. They detained Zagalov but told him they would not harm him, he said.

There was a firefight at the end of the street where a Russian post stood, he said, and three Dagestani policemen were killed. Alexander Cheplayev, a doctor from the Moscow-based All Russia Center for Disaster Medicine who was working in the hospital at Aksai, said three Dagestani policemen had been wounded during the shooting in Sovietskoye and brought to the hospital.

The Chechen fighters, who Zagalov thought had come from Engel Yurt, a village across the border in Chechnya, then took off at 4 a.m., across the fields from which they had come, he said.

The artillery strikes that had resounded all night eased off Thursday morning and virtually ceased by afternoon. In the evening, military jets flew overhead, but the guns were quiet.

The battle for control of the Dagestan village appeared indeed to be over.

Only five hostages had been brought to the hospital at Aksai on Thursday and only eight during the course of the crisis, Cheplayev said.

Aliyev and a Russian, Andrei Dubanenko, 25, both work in the electrical power station in Kizlyar where the Chechens first seized more than 2,000 hostages Jan. 9. They live in the company apartment block from where they were snatched by the gunmen. On Thursday, they lay bandaged under coarse gray hospital blankets, Dubanenko with a bandage around his head.

"The Chechens behaved well toward us," Dubanenko said, describing how once the bombardment of the village began Monday, the Chechens dropped their guard over the hostages.

"When the storm began, they knew the government was also against us and we were all hostages of the government," he said. Dubanenko showed sympathy for the cause of his captors, a phenomenon not unusual among hostages.

He said he had initially been kept with a group of 32 hostages in one house, but after the storm began they were split up. He said two had died in the early stages of the Russian assault, while he had seen around 10 dead Chechens.

The gunmen had not executed any hostages during the crisis, he said. That would contradict claims by the Russian commanders that the Chechens had executed at least two hostages last Sunday, prompting the decision to attack, and most of the rest by Wednesday morning, justifying the decision to flatten Pervomaiskoye with Grad missiles.

"They only shot one man and it was his own fault," Dubanenko said. "He grabbed a gun, so they shot him.

"They are so strong in their belief, they are ready to die for their people," he said. "They took us hostage to win the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya."

Asked if he thought the gunmen were not wrong to take civilian hostages and risk their lives, Dubanenko smiled. After a long pause he said, "Allah will judge."

His face deeply creased from the strain of nine days as a hostage and three days under intense air and artillery bombardment in Pervomaiskoye,

One who was seriously wounded was immediately evacuated to a general hospital in Khasavyurt.

The other four lay in a small room upstairs in the two-story town hospital. Two, heavily sedated, snored by the windows with drips hanging above them.

, adding that the hospital had been designated to take in all civilians wounded in the crisis for treatment and transfer

"They were in masks and dressed in arctic white camouflage," he said.

, turning his head from side to side on the pillow

. They gathered together and thought and decided to go

He said he had no choice but to do as he was told as the Chechens planned their escape.

He also said that the Chechen fighters had several women among them, who fought and worked as nurses, and that there had also been several "Arabs," who did not speak Russian.

A factory worker with striking blue eyes and blond hair,