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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Troops Close In On Rebel Convoy

OUTSIDE PERVOMAISKOYE, Southern Russia -- Russian troops and tanks tightened their ring Thursday around the convoy of gunmen and an estimated 130 to 250 hostages still holed up in the tiny border settlement of Pervomaiskoye, as negotiations limped fitfully on.


"I fear they will destroy the whole village," said Khatimat Israipilova, 59, who fled her home when the Chechen rebels arrived Wednesday from the Dagestani town of Kizlyar with their hostages.


Overnight dozens of Russian tanks had roared through the neighboring hamlet of Sovetskoye and taken up positions west of Pervomaiskoye. Another column stood on the main road to the east.


On Thursday, troops maneuvered five howitzer guns off the road into the fields, lowering their sights on the village. In the afternoon, armored personnel carriers and some trucks set off toward the village, their purpose unclear.


"We are just taking up positions. It is as simple as that," one soldier told reporters as the trucks rolled by, later to stop short.


Alpha, the commando troops of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, were on the scene, as were spetsnaz, or special forces, of the army and Interior Ministry, the chief FSB spokesman said.


The hostage crisis has come as an enormous embarrassment to the government and President Boris Yeltsin, who Thursday was in France attending the funeral of the late Fran?ois Mitterrand.


Itar-Tass reported that the rebels had agreed Thursday night to release all women and children provided the tank movements stopped, and that an official delegation had driven into Pervomaiskoye, suggesting that talks continued.


Among the local villagers, at least, there was a sense that violence was imminent.


"I am just worried about my cattle," said Israipilova's cousin, Isa Salikhov, 46, as he stood looking out across the 20-odd Russian tanks dug in across the snowy fields stretching toward Pervomaiskoye.


There, the Chechen rebels were reported to have taken over the whole village, moving out into houses from the buses that brought them from Kizlyar with their hostages. also killed. It was impossible to confirm the story.


Negotiations with the Chechens brought no results during the day as a 10 a.m. deadline passed, and patience seemed to be running out on both sides. The Chechens renewed threats to execute hostages. A rumor rose that they had shot some of the 37 Russian OMON, or special forces, seized in the village Wednesday, but that was quickly denied by an Interior Ministry spokesman on the scene, the BBC reported.


Itar-Tass cited Interior Ministry sources as saying four of the OMON troops had escaped in the dark Thursday night.


The Russians, for their part, accused the rebels of reneging on an agreement to release the last of the hostages at the border.


"They want to go in all the way to Novy Grozny," said Alexander Mikhailov, chief spokesman for the Federal Security Service, referring to a rebel-held village only 25 kilometers across the border in Chechnya, not far from the republic's second-largest town, Gudermes.


Asked if they would be allowed to depart into Chechnya with their hostages as the Chechens who led the Budyonnovsk raid did, Mikhailov said: "My personal opinion is that they should not be allowed to go free. They are bandits and they should be annihilated."


Local feeling ran in the same vein. Villagers from Pervomaiskoye, located just meters from the Dagestani border with Chechnya, and neighboring villages cursed the Chechens for bringing their war into Dagestan.


"They are dogs, not the wolves they call themselves," Israipilova said, referring to the band of rebels that calls itself the "Lone Wolf." It is led by Salman Raduyev, son-in-law of separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev.


Many had watched the clandestine Chechen "Presidential Channel" on television the previous night. Dudayev had been shown conducting daily business, announcing promotions and vowing to continue the war. The hostage crisis, which began Wednesday when the rebels seized 2,000 to 3,000 hostages in a hospital in Kizlyar, bears marked resemblance to the raid on Budyonnovsk last June, when Chechens seized 1,200 hostages and then escaped in buses back to Chechnya.


In an interview published Thursday in the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, Dudayev promised "hundreds" of further Budyonnovsks and Kizlyars for the future.


"We understand that their is a war being waged against them in Chechnya and we understand why they did this, but why do they come to Dagestan and take action against civilians?" said Najmuddin Magomedov, 40, director of the publishing enterprise in Pervomaiskoye, as he stood on the icy road one kilometer from the village.


Although many feared the destructive capability of the Russian armor massing to blockade the village , they also argued that the Chechens deserved a strong lesson.


"Maybe that was a weakness of [Prime Minister Viktor] Chernomyrdin to let them go last time after Budyonnovsk," said Usman Abdulakarimov, 45, head man of a nearby village, Mutsal-aul.


Standing in front of the crowd of villagers, alone and silent, was a single father who had traveled from Kizlyar to stand vigil for his daughter, seized from her apartment, held hostage in the hospital and then chosen to travel with the Chechens on their journey home.


"I will wait here until the very end," said Salavdin Magamayev. "She is not brave. She will be sick with fear," he said of his daughter, 25, who works in Kizlyar's sewing factory.


"It now depends on the national government, if they make an agreement. I believe they want a peaceful solution," he said, trying to conjure up a smile.