MOSCOW — RUSSIA's worst fears came true this week after dozens of people were killed and hundreds taken hostage in what appeared to be a Chechen raid in a southern Russian town.
The fighters, many of whom wore the bright green headbands of Islamic freedom fighters, stormed the town of Budennovsk, about 50 miles from the Chechen border, in a guerrilla assault Wednesday. Officials say that 42 people, both gunmen and civilians, were killed and 69 wounded.
Russian security forces yesterday ringed the town after the gunmen threatened to execute the hostages, saying they would not give them up unless Russia withdrew all its troops from Chechnya.
The region of Chechnya, which has been under Russian control for more than 100 years, unilaterally declared independence in 1991. Russia sent troops to quell the separatists last December, and fighting escalated to an all-out war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin blamed the rebel Chechens for the attack, which he called a "terrorist act." But separatist leader Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev has disavowed any responsibility.
"None of the armed formations loyal to me have received orders to launch acts of terror," the Itar-Tass news agency quoted him as saying from an undisclosed location in Chechnya. A Dudayev aide was quoted as saying that the raid could have been undertaken by "a group of unorganized defiant supporters of Dudayev."
No matter who is behind the raid, it has fueled concern here that the Chechens, who have virtually lost their independence bid, could make good on earlier threats to launch terrorist attacks in Russia. Most Russians say Chechens are responsible for most Russian crime since the Soviet collapse, and they blame the Chechen mafia for many of the country's economic problems.