Cease-fire ends with a vengeance

January 13, 1995|By Joseph Albright | Joseph Albright,Cox News Service

GROZNY, Russia -- It is 8 a.m. and I am breakfasting on Oleg Martynenko's coffee and piroshkis.

After 32 days of Russian bombardment, Grozny has no electricity. But my Chechen host's gas stove is on full blast. His boom box is powered on a truck battery, so we can hear the official news from Moscow.

Somehow I forgot this was the hour when Moscow's alleged "cease-fire" in the siege of Chechnya was to expire. At 8:01 a.m. I was reminded.

That was when the Russian army began the latest stage of its assault on this breakaway republic by unleashing what may have been the most intense urban artillery bombardment since World War II.

The shells exploded every two seconds. Some whistled over the house en route to the downtown battle zone two miles away. My host -- unfazed after two weeks of bombing -- turned off the news and switched to a rock 'n' roll cassette tape. All he wanted to know was whether the singer was singing in English.

I have heard artillery going off, first in Beirut and then as a pool reporter attached to the biggest U.S. artillery unit that fought in the Persian Gulf war. Nothing I heard before was anything like the awful intensity that Russia applied yesterday on the center of Grozny.

During the heaviest shelling, from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., they must have fired 2,000 shells, every one probably big enough to knock down a wall. It was impossible to assess the human toll, though many Chechens obviously were spared only because they already had fled the city.

The Chechen leader claimed yesterday that 18,000 civilians have been killed since Russia sent some 40,000 troops Dec. 11 to quash a 3-year-old independence movement.

The shells were aimed at a few thousand guerrillas in downtown Grozny. They are hard and dedicated men who know how to fry a tank with a rocket-propelled grenade.

The Russians learned this the hard way when they tried to storm Grozny 10 days ago. Now they are firing into downtown from three to five miles (you can estimate this by counting the seconds between the muzzle detonation and impact).

It is 10:15 a.m. now, and I am suited up in my armored vest, wishing I also had a helmet.

Before I venture outside, two of Martynenko's neighbors stop by to see if there is anything they can do to make my stay in Grozny more comfortable. While they were at it, they wanted me to know that they and a lot of their neighbors are secretly hope the Russians will win.

"Dudayev isn't normal," said builder Sultan Salov, 43, about Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev. "He came in and let everyone out of jail and gave everyone weapons."

By 10:50 a.m. I am in Minutka Square, a gathering point for the Chechen fighters that is about a quarter-mile from Oleg Martynenko's house. From the fresh piles of broken glass, it is suddenly obvious that Minutka was the target of some of the morning's fusillade.

A unit of 40 young commandos with green Islamic headbands and rocket launchers jogs by, apparently heading for duty downtown. They are yelling, "Allah is great."

On the edge of the square are about 50 off-duty Chechen fighters, gaunt-faced after a night at the front.

By 12:10 p.m., I am back at the Martynenko house. It has gotten quieter, though the British Broadcasting Corp., heard by shortwave, is reporting that Grozny is under full-scale artillery attack.

Instead of nonstop artillery, however, you hear occasional machine gun bursts, as though there were street fights under way in the center.

After trying without luck to nap wearing the armored vest, I started to worry about whether all the machine gun fire meant the Russians had captured the presidential palace.

I headed back toward Minutka, hugging a wall because it made me feel safer.

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