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Yeltsin Says Hostage Operation In Dagestan Over

Moscow, Jan. 18 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin has announced the Russian assault against Chechen gunmen in the Dagestani village of Pervomayskaya has ended with a total of 82 hostages freed and 18 reported missing.

The Itar-Tass news agency says Yeltsin made the statement to journalists today after getting a report from the Director of the Federal Security Services Mikhail Barsukov and Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov. Barsukov led the Russian operation to free the hostages.

Yeltsin said 26 Russian troops had died in the assault on the village near the Chechen border, which began Monday.

He said the missing hostages may still be alive and search teams would be dispatched to look for them.

Yeltsin said: "We gave (Chechen separatist leader Dzhokhar) Dudayev a thorough lesson, and now we have to strike at Dudayev's strongholds, where there are no civilians, to end terrorism on Russian soil." Yeltsin said the Chechen commander who led the hostage-taking, Salman Raduyev, had fled to Turkey.

Yeltsin said terrorism had spread to Turkey and this could not be tolerated.

Barsukov said in an interview with the first channel of Russian television that several Chechen fighters had escaped from Pervomayskaya last night. He did not eleborate and did not say if Raduyev was among them.

Earlier, Chechen separatists had said that most of the gunmen had fled Pervomayskaya last night taking with them over 100 hostages. Chechen separatist spokesman Movladi Udugov told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the gunmen, including Raduyev, were able to escape after Chechen fighters breached Russian forces ringing Pervomayskaya, taking their captives with them. The report could not be confirmed independently.