Russians and Chechens in See-saw Battle For Grozny
GROZNY, Russia (AP) _ The see-saw battle for central Grozny intensified Sunday, with Chechen rebels claiming to have recaptured the railway station, central market and two key government buildings.
But the focus of Moscow’s attacks widened to encompass villages in the countryside _ particularly Bamut, strategically located between the capital and the mountains to the southwest.
Chechen rebels have vowed to regroup in the hills if the Russians capture Grozny, capital of the tiny southern republic that is fighting for independence.
The Russians pounded Bamut on Sunday, firing missiles and artillery shells nonstop for nearly an hour. Helicopters launched rocket attacks on Bamut and the nearby village of Samashki.
After two days of relative calm in Grozny, artillery and small arms fire periodically rang out from the fog that hung over the city. A light snow fell, and the temperature hovered near 9 degrees. No jets or helicopters could be heard.
Russian artillery concentrated on Grozny’s southern suburbs and on Chechen positions beyond the Sunzha River running through town. Mortar rounds pounded the streets near the railroad station.
Chechen claims that they recaptured the railway station, central market and government buildings could not immediately be confirmed. It was clear that neither side controlled the city center, devastated in three weeks of ground fighting and by air attacks that began more than a month ago.
Early Sunday, rebels launched a two-hour assault on their ruined presidential building, which they abandoned Thursday. They pulled back amid heavy Russian counter-fire.
Both sides say Chechen snipers remain in the upper floors of the palace, now a blackened hulk.
``The Russians won’t be able to keep any buildings for long, because our guys can show up anywhere they want,″ said 26-year-old fighter Akhmed Papiyev, clad in white winter camouflage. ``We’ll attack them head-on and from behind.″
In the fighting around Bamut, there was no indication that Russian soldiers were attempting to seize the town, 30 miles southwest of Grozny and former site of a Soviet military base.
With little to shoot at, frustrated Chechen rebels sent out snipers to harass the Russians.
About 10 miles east of Grozny, Russian artillery pounded the town of Argun, which has stubbornly resisted for weeks. Beyond Grozny, the Russians apparently had only the northern areas firmly under their control.
In Grozny, many civilians left in the city are ethnic Russians who, unlike Chechens with relatives in the countryside, have nowhere to go. Most have expressed solidarity with their Chechen neighbors, but many are now beginning quietly to complain about their worsening treatment.
``Chechens come and take whatever they want from our houses, telling us that if we tell anyone about this they’ll kill us,″ said a tearful Yelena Dobrolovskaya, 58. ``They can kill us and nobody would know about it. Look how many dead bodies lie on the ground all over the city.″
Dobrolovskaya, who is caring for her husband and paralyzed mother, opened her plastic shopping bag slightly and showed about a pound of meat she had just bought at an outdoor market.
``I don’t know whether we’ll have a chance to eat it or if the Chechens will come and take it away,″ she said, wiping away tears.
Dobrolovskaya and other ethnic Russians, who refused to talk to a reporter when their Chechen neighbors approached, accused Chechen fighters of using civilians as human shields.
``Those fighters are hiding behind us,″ she said. ``They’re attacking Russians and then hiding behind us again. And after that, jets are coming and killing us. We can’t stand this anymore.″
The Russians sent tens of thousands of troops into Chechnya on Dec. 11 to crush the republic’s drive for independence. Kremlin officials concede that clashes with the defiant rebels could continue for years.
Thousands of people have been killed, including hundreds of Russian soldiers.
In Moscow, several thousand people rallied on Sunday to demand an end to the war and commemorate its victims.
Separately, the Russian Council of Servicemen’s Parents, the movement of soldiers’ mothers and similar groups, demanded peace talks with the Chechens and an immediate end to all hostilities.
``No goals, including the preservation of Russia’s territorial integrity and the disarmament of illegal armed formations, can justify (the loss of) hundreds and thousands of lives,″ they said in a letter to Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.