Chechens defy Russian ultimatum

December 18, 1994|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Chechen fighters contemptuously spurned an ultimatum by Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin to lay down their arms as of midnight last night, but the Russian government vowed again to crush resistance there.

Shortly after the deadline passed, artillery shells were fired into an area north of Grozny, the Chechen capital. But it was impossible to know who had fired the salvos, or to identify the intended target, the Russian Itar-Tass news agency reported.

Russian warplanes also buzzed Grozny after the deadline, and explosions were heard northwest of the city, the Associated Press reported from the capital. The Interfax news agency said the flights lasted about three hours then resumed after a two-hour break.

Interfax also reported a rocket attack on the village of Pervomaiskoye northeast of Grozny 20 minutes after the deadline passed. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

The Russian government said its troops were within six miles of Grozny and were prepared to disarm the rebel Chechens either peacefully or through force. The Russian units were estimated to include as many as 40,000 soldiers.

There were doubts about the willingness of Russian soldiers to fight an all-out war in a land 1,000 miles from Moscow.

But the Russian government indulged in a torrent of threatening talk to persuade the leaders of the breakaway territory that Russian aircraft or soldiers could attack Grozny at any moment.

"Illegal bands will be disarmed," a Foreign Ministry statement said, "and, in the event of resistance, destroyed."

The Russian National Security Council had convened yesterday at the clinic where President Yeltsin is recovering from nose surgery, and had re-reaffirmed the deadline to the Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, for the Chechen army to disarm.

If the Russians were bluffing, their increasingly bellicose talk left them very little room to wiggle out of an attack on the capital.

One straw

The one straw offered to them last night was a telegram President Dudayev sent four hours before the deadline, a message saying he would be willing to lead a delegation to new peace negotiations, without any preconditions except that the talks be held "at a proper level."

The Russian response to that offer had not been reported last night.

But much may depend on the attitude of the Russian army -- both in the field and at headquarters.

Dissatisfaction and an unwillingness to shoot at civilians surfaced last week among units to the west of Grozny. The commander of one armored column, Maj. Gen. Ivan Babichev, halted his advance and told villagers that he would not order his men to open fire on them.

General Babichev was called to headquarters yesterday.

The military operation had already gotten off to a sloppy start. And it seemed to bog down just as public opinion was turning decisively against an assault.

Now, officers reportedly worry that the army is about to be made a scapegoat for anything that goes wrong -- and the solution, as the officers see it, is to press ahead immediately with a full-scale attack.

And it is a much different army than that of Soviet times. Until three years ago, the army commanded vast resources, manpower and loyalty. But when the Soviet Union broke up, the army fractured as well.

The old loyalty oaths became meaningless. Russians, Ukrainians, Kazakhs have gone their separate ways -- sometimes staring each other down through gun sights.

Military pay has fallen way behind, housing is miserable, other resources have been cut way back. The army also watched while officers who disobeyed orders during the 1991 coup emerged as heroes.

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