BUDYONNOVSK, Russia -- Russian troops today stormed a hospital where Chechen rebels had taken up to 2,000 people hostage, freeing at least 60, but the rebels put up a ferocious defense, officials and media reports said.
Heavily armed commandos swarmed the building in this southern Russian town while firing automatic weapons, and Russian military helicopters and tanks joined the attack after heavy fighting erupted.
News media reports said the rebels holed up in the hospital were firing back with automatic weapons and using their captives as human shields.
Battles still raged four hours after the assault was launched, and reports from the scene said the area was covered with wounded. Government officials said some of the attacking troops and some rebels had been killed, but they gave no figures.
Before today's fighting, the official death toll in the siege of Budyonnovsk was 67, with unconfirmed reports putting it at 117.
Yesterday, the rebels had said they were prepared to kill hostages and blow up the building if demands, including the withdrawal of Russian troops from breakaway Chechnya, were not met.
Negotiations faltered between Russian authorities and guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev, a popular and charismatic Chechen field commander who has reportedly lost 11 family members during Russia's six-month war to subdue Chechnya.
Mr. Basayev reportedly refused a Russian offer of an aircraft and safe passage for him and his estimated 50 or 60 men to any nation that would accept them.
"Let them come and storm the place," the rebel leader had said at a news conference inside the hospital Thursday night. "It does not matter to us when we die. What matters is how we die. We must die with dignity."
Today's fighting had not spread to other parts of Budyonnovsk, where residents who had been huddling in their houses came into the street to hear news of the battle and debate the government's action.
"It's all due to the negligence of our leaders," said Valentina Lazareva, a 57-year-old retiree. "For half a year it's been dragging on in Chechnya. Couldn't they have stopped it from spreading over our border?"
"It was wrong to storm the hospital," said a shirtless, barefoot man who identified himself only as Viktor. "Instead, they should have solved it peacefully."
Ms. Lazareva disagreed. "Something has to be done to rescue them. They have nothing to eat there," she said. "Maybe storming was the right thing to do."
"Tell this idiot president of ours to come here," Zinaida Azimanova, 52, said, criticizing Boris N. Yeltsin for departing for the meeting of the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized nations in Canada while his countrymen were held hostage. "He should stop these talks in Canada and come talk to these terrorists. The Chechens are spilling the blood of our innocent people."
The battle followed a day of uncertainty and anger in Budyonnovsk, a town of 100,000 about 70 miles from the Chechen border.
Yesterday, as 31 bodies were unloaded from refrigerator trucks and carried past a sweaty, sobbing crowd into Bathhouse No. 1, the people of Budyonnovsk cursed the Chechen attackers and the man that they blamed for the Chechen war: Mr. Yeltsin.
"They should never have started this war," said Svetlana Shakhsadova, 33, referring to the faraway Russian leadership in Moscow. "They should have shut our border tight against the Chechens and let them eat each other."
The circle of women around her nodded, holding handkerchiefs over their noses to block the stench and to catch their tears. All had come to the bathhouse to scan the faces of the dead in hopes that their missing relatives would not be among them but would turn out to be among those being held at the hospital.
"Yeltsin should be watching this," one woman shouted as grim-faced men dragged yet another corpse from the truck and a despairing young woman folded at the waist like a rag doll.
"No, he can't see it; he's gone to Canada," another said. The crowd echoed angry agreement with opposition leaders in Moscow.
"He has shown the world that his own prestige is more important to him than the lives of his people," a 19-year-old Russian soldier who gave only his first name, Alexei, said bitterly. "For someone who was planning to run for president, not in Canada but in Russia, it's a suicidal step."
Mr. Yeltsin suggested before his departure from Moscow that he was headed to the G-7 summit to persuade Western doubters that Russia's military crackdown on Chechnya is a justified anti-terrorist action.
But his attempt to use the hostage crisis to convince the West that war against the separatists is actually an anti-terrorist action appeared to backfire.
At a dinner meeting last night, the G-7 leaders expressed concern over the confrontation in Budyonnovsk but warned Mr. Yeltsin that he must end the military crackdown against Chechnya if he wants to restore peace and security in the region, summit officials told reporters.
Russian Economics Minister Yevgeny G. Yasin briefed journalists talks Mr. Yeltsin held with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien but made no mention of the unfolding crisis back home.