BUDYONNOVSK, Russia -- The top Russian commander in Chechnya ordered a halt to all military activity in the breakaway republic yesterday in a major concession to the Chechen rebels who continued to hold hundreds of hostages inside a barricaded hospital here.
Peace talks on Chechnya's future were also set for the Chechen capital of Grozny today. A Chechen delegation arrived in Grozny this morning for the start of peace talks with Russian officials, Itar-Tass news agency said.
In return, the renegade Chechen commander, Shamil Basayev, released 200 hostages, mostly pregnant women, mothers and children. The latest release in this southern Russian city brings the total number of freed hostages to about 400.
The developments were the result of an unprecedented deal between Mr. Basayev and Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, who had five direct telephone conversations yesterday in an attempt to settle the days-old hostage crisis.
In a startling departure from Russian officialdom's customarily secretive style, Mr. Chernomyrdin permitted television crews to sit in his office and broadcast his end of the conversations with Mr. Basayev on national television. President Boris N. Yeltsin did not appear to be involved in the hostage negotiations.
Safe-passage arrangements for Mr. Basayev to leave the hospital compound that he and his menseized Wednesday, however, were not completed by nightfall yesterday. Mr. Basayev announced that he would stay in the hospital until morning and release no further hostages, even though he had earlier promised to free all women, children, elderly, sick or wounded hostages.
Gunfire was heard coming from the hospital compound early today, and it was unclear whether the negotiated settlement was breaking down.
In their last conversation, Mr. Basayev told Mr. Chernomyrdin that Russian soldiers were shooting at him and were inside the hospital compound in violation of an agreement to stay out.
"I am not to blame for your side's not fulfilling the conditions," Mr. Basayev told Mr. Chernomyrdin. "I even agreed to additional concessions because you intervened personally. . . . I found nine women about to give birth and let them go. It is enough for today.
"We will spend the night here and then let them go."
If Mr. Basayev had hoped to score humanitarian points by allowing some of the hostages to leave, his plans were thwarted by the hair-raising tales told by some of the released captives. Natalia Ageikina, 18 and six-months pregnant, was struck by two bullets when the Chechens forced her to stand in front of a hospital window waving a white flag during a Russian assault Saturday.
As the woman lay on a stretcher at a first-aid clinic waiting to be transferred to a hospital, she said she had been hit in the shoulder and under the arm.
"The Chechens led a number of women to the windows, lining us up close together, stuck a rifle between two of us and started to fire at the Russians," Ms. Ageikina said. "Meantime, a couple of Chechens were hiding between the windows, prompting us to tell the soldiers not to fire. And we did, because we knew if we didn't they would kill us."
Mr. Chernomyrdin appeared intent both on freeing as many hostages as possible and on dislodging Mr. Basayev and his men from the charred hospital.
Keeping his side of the bargain struck early yesterday morning, Mr. Chernomyrdin went on television promising that Russia would cease military operations in Chechnya and negotiate for a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Simultaneously, the Chechens were to release all children, women and elderly, and sick or wounded hostages. The agreement presumably meant that Mr. Basayev could take an unspecified number of healthy male hostages with him for protection.
Mr. Chernomyrdin also promised to supply either helicopters or buses for Mr. Basayev's group and an unspecified number of hostages to leave, reportedly for Mr. Basayev's hometown of Vedeno in the southern mountains of Chechnya.
Six buses were seen parked outside the hospital compound, and Russian officers said a number of helicopters had been flown to the Budyonnovsk stadium yesterday evening and were standing by.
But Mr. Basayev said he did not want to travel after dark, and he spurned an attempt by Mr. Chernomyrdin to send local officials into the hospital compound in exchange for the captive women. Contrary to Russian reports that the Chechens had only about 60 fighters inside the compound, Mr. Basayev said he had 127 men and insisted on departing with one hostage for each of them.
Mr. Basayev also demanded that his hostage convoy be accompanied by four members of the Russian Duma, or lower house of Parliament, including human rights champion Sergei A. Kovalev, and some journalists.
Mr. Basayev claimed to be still holding "thousands" of hostages. Mr. Chernomyrdin put the number at 700.
More than 100 people have been killed and at least 130 wounded since the Chechens invaded Budyonnovsk on Wednesday demanding an end to the brutal 6-month-old Russian military campaign in Chechnya.
Among the dead in Budyonnovsk was Natalya Alyakina, a Russian journalist writing for the German magazine Focus. Her editors in Munich said Russian soldiers fired on a car carrying her and journalist Gisbert Mrozek, her German husband, after waving it through a checkpoint near the town Saturday.
Russia's Itar-Tass news agency said Interior Ministry officials suggested she might have been shot by Chechens. But Mr. Mrozek reported that the post commander admitted that Russian soldiers fired two shots in error.
Today's peace talks in Grozny are to be held at the office of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe.