MOSCOW — Six Western medical workers were killed in their beds at a Red Cross hospital in southern Russia on Tuesday, in a sharp jolt to a fragile peace process just beginning to take hold in the separatist region of Chechnya.
Unidentified masked men carrying guns with silencers slipped into the hospital at 4 a.m., bashed down the doors to a bedroom where the expatriate staff members were sleeping and shot seven of them in cold blood.
Five female nurses and one man, a builder, were killed; the seventh victim survived.
Kim Gordon-Bates of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva denounced the killings, calling them the deadliest single attack against the ICRC in its 133-year history.
The aid organization was scrambling to evacuate the rest of its 70 staff members from Chechnya and announced that it was suspending operations there.
The slayings put new pressure on a tenuous peace deal, struck this autumn, between a humiliated Russia and a tiny fighting force of Chechen separatists whom Moscow could not crush after almost two years of war.
The crime "cast a murky shadow over Chechnya's involvement in the peace process," said Ivan P. Rybkin, Russia's top security official, who visited Chechnya on Tuesday.
Rybkin, chief of the Security Council, issued a sharp warning to Zelimkhan A. Yanderbiyev, Chechnya's current leader, to keep his countrymen under control or risk torpedoing presidential elections due Jan. 27: "These brutal murders . . . forced us to tell Yanderbiyev one more time that it is only possible to hold elections in civilized conditions. We would like to be dealing with Chechen leaders who are in control of their republic."
The victorious Chechens' reward for their successful resistance was a promise from Russia that all its troops would leave Chechnya, that elections for an interim Chechen president would be conducted and that Chechen demands for independence would be considered in five years' time.
But the war has left Chechnya in ruins, many of its people embittered by their losses and guns readily available. Crime is rampant. Fear of shootings and kidnappings keeps citizens off the streets at night.
Residents of the local capital, Grozny, say they are in more danger now than at the height of the war.
Although more than two dozen Chechen separatists have signed up as presidential candidates, there are plenty of people keen to stop the elections.
Among those with vested interests in upsetting the agreement are Russian hard-liners who believe the peace deal has sold out Moscow's interests; Chechen extremists who want their independence without waiting; and a pro-Moscow group of Chechens who ran a puppet government in Grozny until their peace deal fell apart.
Salman Raduyev, one irreconcilable Chechen warlord, has for days ignored the demands of both the Chechen government and Russia that he release more than 20 Russian border guards he is holding hostage.
On Tuesday, Russian and Chechen officials denounced the killings of the Red Cross workers in the village of Noviye Atagi as a deliberate attempt to stop the elections, which are seen as vital if peace is to hold in Chechnya.
Neither side offered any specific suggestions as to who might have carried out the brutal act.
Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's press spokesman, denounced the slayings as a "provocation" and expressed the hope that they would "not scuttle the peace process in Chechnya."
Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Movladi Udugov called them "a political action, aiming to aggravate the situation ahead of the elections and, probably, to disrupt them."
He said his government believed that individuals who wish to restart the Chechen conflict were behind the slayings.
He theorized that the killers were professional criminals, since they shot the foreign nurses and construction technician point-blank, "in a . . . coldblooded manner," and fled without taking money, drugs or medicine.
Thierry Meyrat, head of the ICRC mission in Russia, said the killers' use of guns with silencers--not the clunking Kalashnikov rifles that many young men carry on the streets in the strife-torn region--indicated professionals had been at work.
Chechen police were investigating the killings. In addition, Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Chechen leaders--in an apparent effort to show their eagerness to solve the crime--as promising to hand over the killers, once they are caught, to the countries from which the six Red Cross workers came: Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Spain.
Chechen officials also promised to guarantee the safety of foreign citizens on Chechen soil.
Tim Guldimann, a representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said his team would not be pulling out.
But the small British charity Merlin--among the last agencies, apart from the ICRC, to brave conditions to try to assist in Chechnya--announced that it would withdraw.