Gunmen seize hostages in southern Russian region

MOSCOW - Gunmen seized at least four hostages on Thursday in a southern Russian town, demanding $30 million and a helicopter, officials said.

The gunmen appeared to have dropped a demand that Russia release all Chechens being held in prison, the officials said.

Maj. Salbi Gerba, the head of the local Interior Ministry branch, said that a man who had fled the scene in the town of Lazarevskoye described four people being taken hostage by two men. The town is about 35 miles west of the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

The gunmen did not identify themselves, officials said. But Sergei Yastrzhembsky, a Kremlin spokesman, said that the gunmen were local residents, and that they were demanding talks with President Vladimir Putin.

There were conflicting reports of how many people were involved in the hostage-taking. Putin's envoy to the region, Viktor Kazantsev, said that there were four gunmen and six hostages. He said that one of the hostages had recently been discharged from a mental hospital, and the other was a drug addict.

Yastrzhembsky said five workers were being held in a private house that was being used as a small hotel, and that there were three captors. Two of them were brothers of the house's owner, he said.

At least one person escaped from the house by jumping out a window, Yastrzhembsky said.

Russian television networks showed police in bulletproof vests surrounding the three-story house, and armored vehicles parked outside it. Crowds of onlookers stood on nearby street corners.

Initial negotiations were conducted through a female hostage, officials said, but officials later passed a mobile telephone to the gunmen and opened direct negotiations.

The hostage-taking came just days before the anniversary of the start of the latest Russian war in Chechnya. Russian jets bombed the outskirts of Grozny on Sept. 23, 1999, and troops rolled into the breakaway republic seven days later.

But Yastrzhembsky said it was too early to draw a connection.

''There are no grounds so far to speak of a Chechen connection, since the terrorists have not been identified yet,'' he said.


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