Russian dead, despair fill streets of Grozny

January 04, 1995|By New York Times News Service

GROZNY, Russia -- This grim city was strewn yesterday with scores of dead Russian soldiers, who lay in stacks along the broad, tree-lined boulevards.

Wild dogs roamed among them on the streets. Old women locked out of darkened basements wailed in terror, shielding their eyes from the frightening skies above.

Although many people have thought it was not possible, the fighting for the Chechen capital keeps worsening.

Desperate Russian troops caught inside the city blasted away with tanks, hitting both the presidential palace and the Parliament. Russian rocket attacks were incessant.

"The Russians are going to bomb, bomb, bomb and bomb," said Movladi Udugov, the Chechen information minister, on a tour of the city. "The only thing left to them is to destroy everything from the air."

This seems to be exactly what the Russian leaders have in mind. In Moscow, military officials said that they had dispatched reinforcements, even as the political cost of the war appeared to be mounting rapidly.

Former Prime Minister Yegor T. Gaidar, once one of President Boris N. Yeltsin's closest allies, said in a Moscow news conference that "there is a great danger of a military coup." Russian democracy, he said, has never been shakier since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Gaidar, who broke with the president over the Chechnya policy, called the war "a massive military crime."

He urged Mr. Yeltsin to get rid of those "who pushed him to this adventure," including Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev, Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai D. Yegorov and Oleg Lobov, the secretary of the National Security Council.

Russian military leaders appear to be increasingly desperate, as they fail to defeat a weak and outnumbered opponent.

The Russians have marshaled a force of young, inexperienced soldiers who have little commitment to the mission. The Chechens, in contrast, are utterly committed to independence from Russia and have little left to lose.

Access to Grozny -- the name means "terrible" in Russian -- is rapidly starting to end. Yesterday, for the first time, Russian planes strafed and bombed the main highway leading away from the capital, setting ablaze dozens of cars filled mostly with refugees and sending other travelers diving into muddy ditches.

The three main open-air markets -- in Argun, Shali and Chechen Aul -- were devastated by bombs in the past two days. Civilian deaths and injuries were heavy.

It was a brilliant, sunny day yesterday in the Caucasus. But Grozny was wrapped in a thick black cloud that could easily be seen from 20 miles away -- the burning residue of fires from a bombed oil refinery, gas pipelines, and thousands of rounds of artillery and tank shells.

Fighting continued in the center of the city, which is controlled by Chechen soldiers, and at the railroad station to the west. In the east and the south, Russian reserve forces and paratroopers were moving around the village of Argun to reinforce units in Grozny.

Along the highway to the south, rebel fighters stood behind thin, young trees with grenade launchers and automatic rifles waiting for the Russian advance.

"The planes come all night long now," said Khasan Rasayev, wearing the green ribbon of a Muslim suicide fighter around his woolen cap. "There is nowhere to hide. They bomb in the center, in the suburbs and the villages. They are trying to kill everything on this land. But this will go on to the very end."

There are no more trappings of normal life in Grozny. Ask a man walking toward the presidential palace carrying a grenade launcher on his back what he is doing and he replies: "I am going to work."

There are no battle lines that have meaning. A Russian block today is a Chechen meeting place tomorrow.

Chechen soldiers danced in joy yesterday three blocks from the train station where hundreds of their compatriots were fighting. The presidential palace was shelled. but nobody abandoned it, and once again there was no sign of Russian troops.

North and northwest of the palace, according to a report from the private Russian news agency Interfax, there were a large number of damaged Russian armored vehicles, with as many as 100 dead Russian servicemen around them.

The Interfax report quoted a wounded Russian officer, Alexander Bondarev, as saying that out of 20 armored vehicles in his unit, 17 were burned with their crews. He said the chief of staff of the battalion had been killed.

Grozny is a broad, industrial, gently hilly city, with huge apartment buildings that have now become fair game for bombers and snipers. The war for the city appears to be a free-for-all battle, rather than an assault from organized lines.

But much of this has happened before. In the 19th century, the czar's armies attacked the Chechens for 40 years but couldn't take Grozny or defeat the rebels in the hills around the city.

So they finally decided to do what the Russian troops are doing now: They destroyed the villages surrounding the city. They razed the cropland and killed cattle. And in the end the weary Chechens could do nothing but give up.

For now, though, the Chechens appear resolute.

"Our slogan is freedom or death," said one soldier at the presidential palace.

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