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Discrepencies In Russian Government Claims Raise Doubts

Prague, Jan. 19 (RFE/RL) -- As a 10-day hostage crisis in Dagestan ended yesterday, questions mounted about the truthfulness of the Russian government and the effectiveness of the Russian military.

There were inconsistent accounts from various Russian government officials -- including President Boris Yeltsin -- on the fate of civilian hostages as well as the Chechen separatists holding them. This has led observers in Russia and abroad to question whether the press and public were manipulated.

The suspicions were the result above all of the claim by Russian authorities that a four-day-long assault on the village of Pervomayskaya commenced only after it was determined that all the hostages had been killed by the their captors. Unexpectedly, after the smoke cleared, many hostages were found alive.

Some of the freed hostages told reporters that no executions had taken place.

The number of surviving hostages varied depending upon the official speaking. Yeltsin put the number at 82. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said 42. The man Yeltsin placed in charge of the "rescue operation", chief of the Federal Security Service General Mikhail Barsukov, put the number at 90.

Barsukov also said that no hostages had yet been found dead, though he said some of them may have been buried before the village was retaken by Russian forces. His comments came one day after his own service reported that no hostages remained alive. News reports say some hostages are now hospitalized.

To be sure, the counting has been hampered by the difficulty in distinguishing right away between captors and captives among the victims.

Until today, the fate of the separatists was also unclear. At first Yeltsin claimed they all had been killed or captured, while a separatist spokesman told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty yesterday that most of the Chechens, including their leader, Salman Raduyev, had escaped, taking with them about 100 hostages.

Today, officials from both sides said about 20 separatists managed to escape, taking with them about 20 hostages. The separatists continue to insist that Raduyev escaped.

Confusion persists regarding how a group of some 300 separatists surrounded in a small village could withstand the might of the Russian military, including attacks from tanks and jet fighter planes, and how so many could then be allowed to escape.

Yeltsin responded by claiming that Pervomayskaya, which the rebels occupied when their retreat with their hostages from Dagestan was blocked by Russian forces, was equipped by the Chechens with an underground base complete with concrete gun emplacements.

The Russian daily Izvestiya today ran an article by Irina Dementyeva, titled "Ten Days of Pain, Impotence, and Shame." She accused Russian officials of "trying to conceal the scale and tragedy of Pervomayskoye." She charged "they are not short of practice in lying....Particularly when there are no eyewitnesses."

Commenting on uncertainties about how many hostages were held, the article says "nobody has said" how many there were "and now they never will." She goes on to write "they lied to us that they were planning to rescue (the hostages), "that for the sake of freeing the hostages 'the operation was prepared with the utmost care.' "