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Chechens Release Hostages As Yeltsin Announces Aid

Prague, Jan. 25 (RFE/RL) - Chechen separatists yesterday released more than 40 hostages seized in a raid in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan that ended in a showdown with Russian troops.

The number of those freed ranges from 45, according to Russian media reports, to 42, as reported by Western agencies.

In return, the Chechens received the bodies of 42 of their comrades killed during three days of intense fighting with Russian forces in the Dagestan village of Pervomayskaya.

Western correspondents say the hostages looked exhausted but also relieved as they boarded a bus in the eastern Chechen town of Novogroznesky where they had been held.

Before the release, the captives were addressed by several Chechen separatist leaders, including commander Aslan Maskhado and raid leader Salman Raduyev. Some Dagestani officials also addressed the captives.

A member of the Dagestani parliament, Gadji Makhachev, said that the captives should not be regarded as hostages. He said that the Chechens had actually saved their lives by taken them away from Pervomayskaya during the massive onslaught of Russian "Grad" anti-personnel rockets.

The swap was arranged by Dagetani officials after days of tense negotiations. But the Chechens still claim to hold more than a dozen captives from the Dagestan crisis, including Russian police officers. Russian forces say they are holding the remains of 111 Chechen fighters.

A Chechen official involved in negotiations for the release of the hostages told ITAR-TASS today that the exchange of the remaining Russian police commandos could could take place tomorrow. Akhmed Aliyev said the Chechen separatists demand the bodies of 42 comrades they say the Russians are holding in the Dagestan village of Khasavyurt.

Meanwhile, Raduyev says he still holds 29 electric power plant workers, believed to be mainly ethnic Russian. Raduyev, the son-in-law of Chechen separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, has said those hostages will only be released in exchange for Chechen prisoners.

President Boris Yeltsin announced a financial package today to rebuild Pervomayskaya. The village endured a three-day Russian assault that left it a smouldering ruin.

Yeltsin's press secretary Sergei Medvedev said Moscow will outlay the ruble equivalent of $66 million for reconstructing Pervomayskaya and the nearby village of Kizlar, where the drama first unfolded three weeks ago. Medvedev also said that an additional $7.6 million will be given as a one-time compensation to the victims of the tragedy and their families.

Yesterday, Yeltsin estimated the overall aid plan for Chechnya would be about $4.2 billion dollars. He reiterated the Kremlin position that Chechnya remains a part of the Russian Federation and said the aid would go to constructing new apartments, factories and roads. Finance Minister Vladimir Panskov said the program could be paid for from the existing budget. He said such a move would require what he called a "redistribution of tax flows."

But the plan also drew criticism. Amangeldy Tuleyev, a lawmaker from northern Russia, told the Los Angeles Times yesterday that Yeltsin contends "there is no money to pay wages to miners, teachers and doctors, but gives colossal sums of money as handouts to Chechnya."

Correspondents say the destruction of Pervomayskaya has fueled bitter feelings among local residents, mostly ethnic Dagestanis, towards the Russians. They say that the aid might be designed to assuage these feelings.

Deputy Prime Minster Yuri Yarov, responsible for social welfare policy, told ITAR-TASS news agency that "the government.. will take all adequate actions for Dagestani citizens to see that they live in Russia as in a single family."

But Alexander Konovalov, writing in yesterday's Russian daily "Nezavisimaya Gazeta", said that the Russian assault on Pervomayskaya turned sentiment among Dagetanis to the side of the Chechen separatists. He said that Russia lost the "moral superiority" it might have had when the hostage-crisis began.
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.