THE Kremlin regained some lost face yesterday after securing the release of some of the captives held by armed Chechen guerrillas in a once-sleepy town in Russia's heartland.
Despite official boasts last December that the Russian Army could stomp out Chechnya's independence drive within a few hours, six months of brutal warfare and tens of thousands of casualties have forced Moscow to reassess what it is up against. The overwhelming force of the Russian military has not been able to budge the immovable object of Chechen will for independence.
Following a commando-style raid on the southern Russian town of Budennovsk by Chechen rebels, Russian officials are negotiating with people they call criminal terrorists in order to save lives.
Speaking to Chechen rebel field commander Shamil Basayev by telephone from Moscow, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said he would order all Russian bombing raids and military attacks to halt if the estimated 1,000 hostages held in a Budennovsk hospital were freed, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.
But Mr. Chernomyrdin apparently was referring only to a temporary end to hostilities in the Chechen war. He made no reference to a complete withdrawal of Russian troops from the northern Caucasian republic, where they were dispatched in December to quell the region's three-year bid for independence from Moscow.
"I will give the order now. The freeing of hostages will begin," the prime minister said from Russia's parliament building. He also promised new peace talks to find a lasting settlement to the conflict.
Itar-Tass reported Mr. Basayev as releasing 126 more hostages yesterday, mostly women and children. The Chechens have held the hostages in a hospital in Budennovsk since last Wednesday, when they launched a raid on the town that killed at least 67 people.
Basayev said he would release more later, but some reports say he wants to take 50 captives with him back to Chechnya as a guarantee. He also yesterday requested a plane to fly him and the other rebels in the hospital to an unknown destination.
While it was unclear if the cease-fire would result in the release of the rest of the hostages, it sparked hopes that both sides could be willing to compromise to end the five-day standoff as peacefully as possible, and perhaps help give more impetus to find a more lasting peace.
President Boris Yeltsin, who returned to Moscow from Canada yesterday from a Group of Seven meeting, has not publicly stated whether he supported the truce. But it received the approval of Defense Minister Grachev and Oleg Lobov, head of Yeltsin's powerful Security Council, Itar-Tass reported.
Attempts to stop the crisis by force have already failed. Russian special forces unsuccessfully stormed the hospital twice on Saturday, making good on Grachev's threat to free the hostages by force. Witnesses said about 30 hostages were killed during the storming, the Interfax news agency reported.
At least 230 hostages were freed Saturday, Sergei Stepashin, head of the Federal Security Service, said. Television reports showed mothers clutching their children - some of them newborn babies - as they left the hospital, many blaming the Russian soldiers for killing innocent people. Earlier yesterday another estimated 32 women and children, seen waving white flags from hospital windows, were eventually freed from the hospital, Itar-Tass reported.
Yeltsin, meanwhile, said upon his return to Moscow that his first priority would be to tackle the hostage crisis. The Russian leader took advantage of the crisis at the G-7 meeting, where he told leaders that the hostage-taking showed the Chechen rebels were not freedom fighters, but simple terrorists after all.
Russian leaders have justified their use of indiscriminate force in the region by saying that it had become a den of thieves, drug traffickers, and mafia ringleaders in the four years since the Soviet collapse.
Security has been beefed up across the country - especially in Moscow, which Chechen rebels had earlier said was one of their choices of a target.
What remains unclear, however, is how as many as 100 armed Chechen rebels were able to cross into Russia so easily.
Some reports, as yet unconfirmed, said the fighters crossed the Chechen border by hiding in coffins in the back of Russian military vehicles. Others said the guerrillas simply bribed their way past Russian Army checkpoints.
Mr. Basayev, an experienced commander who has reportedly lost 11 family members since the war began, was once head of Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev's bodyguard service. But General Dudayev, the self-proclaimed president of Chechnya, has claimed no responsibility for the hostage crisis.