Police and former KGB commandos tracked four masked kidnappers through snowy mountains and captured them Monday, a day after they freed the last of their hostages and fled in a helicopter with $10 million ransom.

Children who had been seized from a classroom and held at gunpoint were reunited with their joyful families in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, bringing the four-day hostage drama to a happy end.Police said they recovered about $9.4 million of the $10 million ransom paid by the Russian government.

If convicted, the kidnappers could face the death penalty.

Even in a nation beset by organized crime and lawlessness, Russians were shocked by the seizure of a dozen teenage boys and girls from Public School No. 25 in Rostov-on-Don, 600 miles south of Moscow.

To many people, it was the strongest evidence yet that morality is crumbling as their nation struggles through the painful transition from communism to capitalism. Some have begun to long for the old Soviet police state.

President Boris Yeltsin's government - which faces a rising challenge from extreme nationalists and communists who are using crime as a rallying cry - responded to the hostage-taking as though it were a major environmental disaster or international crisis.

An emergency committee headed by a deputy prime minister oversaw the situation. The Foreign Ministry sent a negotiator. The Central Bank hurriedly borrowed $10 million from two private banks to pay the ransom, and the former KGB dispatched its elite "Alpha" commandos.

Yeltsin, however, remained silent and allowed his aides and law enforcement authorities to manage the case. Monday, he thanked them for their work. "This hour of trial has revealed the best qualities of our people, who have never been indifferent to the suffering of others, whose souls have not grown callous, even today," Yeltsin's statement said.

Police said the four gunmen were arrested, two at a time, during an eight-hourmanhunt that began Sunday night after they released their hostages in the resort city of Mineralnye Vody and took off in the Mi-8 military helicopter.

The kidnappers stuffed most of the $10 million in cash into duffel bags and apparently tossed the rest from the helicopter as they passed over the self-proclaimed republic of Chechnya.

"I guess it was too much for them to carry and still run through the mountains," police Col. Yuri Reshetnik told The Associated Press.

The kidnappers tried to escape on foot into the wooded Caucasus Mountains after forcing the helicopter's two pilots to land in a clearing a few miles outside Makhachkala, the capital of the Dagestan region along the Caspian Sea, 1,000 miles southeast of Moscow.

The gunmen broke the aircraft's radio to prevent the pilots from calling for help. But local police and "Alpha" commandos following in other helicopters quickly arrived and began combing the rugged, snowy mountains.

Shortly after midnight, they captured two of the kidnappers during a brief gunfight in which no one was killed. Police said they seized $6.5 million, an automatic rifle and a pistol from Abdulgafar Abduzhalimov, 21, of Uzbekistan and Arslan Kasimov, 48, an ethnic Kyrgyz from Azerbaijan.

Police identified Kasimov as the gang's leader and said he was the only one with a criminal record. He was previously convicted on robbery, burglary and narcotics charges, the Interfax news agency said.

The other kidnappers were captured a few hours later, carrying most of the remaining ransom but no weapons. Police identified them as Marat Kauzbekov, 19, of Kazakhstan and Anatoly Mikheyev, 46, of the Russian city of Sverdlovsk.

Police had suspected that at least one of the kidnappers was a pilot. Mikheyev, the sole Russian, turned out to be a military navigator who was dismissed from the Russian air force for drinking, ITAR-Tass reported.

The crisis had begun Thursday morning when the kidnappers, carrying three rifles and a pistol, burst into the school, herded the students and a female teacher onto a bus, and demanded a helicopter or plane.

Authorities provided the helicopter and two volunteer pilots. The kidnappers ordered them to fly a zig-zag route south and announced they would blow up the explosive-packed aircraft if they were not given safe passage to Iran.

Russian authorities met all the hostages' demands. The ransom, packed in five plastic-wrapped packages of $2 million each, was flown in from Moscow.

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During a tense, three-day standoff at the airport in Mineralnye Vody, 800 miles south of Moscow, the kidnappers released a few hostages at a time.

Seven teenage girls and a teacher were freed Friday. Two classmates, both 15-year-old boys, were released Saturday.

At 6:45 p.m. Sunday, the gunmen freed the last of the children and the bus driver, then took off. Only the kidnappers and the final two hostages - the volunteer pilots - were still aboard.

After about 90 minutes, the helicopter set down briefly and the kidnappers got off near Makhachkala. To increase their chances of escape, they split into two pairs and headed in different directions, police said.

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