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Yeltsin Calls Assault A Necessary Tragedy

Moscow, Jan. 19 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin today said the military operation against Chechen hostage-takers in the Dagestani village of Pervomayskaya was tragic but necessary.

Yeltsin said in Moscow at the summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) that the loss of life was a tragedy, but that the government had "no choice" but to end the standoff.

He said the bodies of 153 Chechen fighters had been found in and around Pervomayskaya in southern Russia, and 30 gunmen had been captured. He did not say what happened to the remaining gunmen, who numbered 320 when they arrived in the village. He said 26 Russian troops were killed in the assault and nearly 100 wounded.

Yeltsin had earlier said that 82 hostages were freed when Russian forces stormed the village. He said 18 hostages were still missing, but "must be presumed alive."

The figures were impossible to confirm independently. Throughout the standoff, Russian authorities have given widely different and often contradictory estimates of the number of gunmen and hostages.

Russian troops today combed the ruins of Pervomayskaya looking for any remaining hostages or rebels. They have begun questioning freed hostages and captured gunmen. They said the mopping up operation could take two days.