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Russian Hostage Saga Underscores Growing Crime Wave, Lax Laws

Amid harsh economic reforms, Yeltsin used event to show toughness

VIOLENT crime has exploded so dramatically in Russia that when a group of schoolchildren in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don was kidnapped last week, the government treated the event as if it were a major international crisis.

The five-day saga began Dec. 23 when Russia's most powerful ministries were put on alert after masked gunmen burst into a classroom in Rostov and seized a dozen teenagers, their teacher, and a bus driver before commandeering a helicopter and demanding a $10-million ransom and free passage to Iran. It ended yesterday with the arrest of the assailants, who had previously let the hostages go, and President Boris Yeltsin thanking the committee of government heavyweights he called on to resolve the crisis.

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The incident, and the fact that the assailants thought they had a reasonable hope of getting away with it, underscores the violent crime and lax laws gripping post-Soviet Russia, which has suffered from soaring rates of murder and physical assaults since the 1991 Soviet collapse.

In a country reeling from harsh economic reforms, the government involvement also highlights Yeltsin's desire to appear a leader who is tough yet still sensitive to the needs of others.

At the beginning of the drama, Russia's Foreign Ministry was called on to create Operation Nabat, or Alarm. A top government official, First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets, was put in charge of the operation, working alongside officials from the Interior Ministry and the Department on Combating Terrorism.

Mr. Yeltsin and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev were kept continuously appraised of the situation, even though they were attending attending a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Turkmenistan.

According to the daily newspaper Izvestia, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev was asked to leave the Ashkhabad summit immediately and fly to Moscow where he dispatched soldiers and members of the elite ``spetsnaz'' to trail the commandeered helicopter.

Throughout the incident, Russian Ambassador to Tehran Sergei Tretyakov kept in close contact with Iranian officials. Maxim Peshkov, head of the Foreign Ministry's Iran Department, told the Monitor afterward that Russian officials believed early on that the masked men had no intention of flying there. After their capture one of the gunmen told the Interfax news agency that flying to Iran was just a ploy; he alleged he really needed the money to get treatment for AIDS.

By Friday evening, the gunmen had flown to the resort town of Mineral'nyye Vody, 800 miles south of Moscow.

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Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko gathered $10 million from 10 commercial banks earlier in the day.

Over the weekend Interior Ministry officials oversaw operations in Moscow and southern Russia, spokesman Yuri Reshetnik says. ``We were guided by one idea: not to aggravate the situation, not to provoke the criminals into perpetrating violence,'' he told the Monitor. ``We tried to save the lives of the children.''

By Saturday, the gunmen released seven of the teenagers and their teacher. The following day, the kidnappers released everyone but the pilots, whom they made fly to Makhachkala, capital of the semi-autonomous republic of Daghestan, not far from Azerbaijan. After landing in the outskirts of the capital trailed by the spetsnaz, the armed men disabled the radio, freed the pilots, and fled.

Two were arrested after an overnight shoot-out in the Makhachkala suburbs yesterday, the other two were arrested in the city later that day. Commonwealth television said the hijackers' leader was a criminal nicknamed Marat. He lived in Bishkek, capital of the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. The others, including two students, had no criminal record. None of suspects are ethnic Caucasians, a group blamed for most violent and economic crimes in Russia.

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