Russians push into Grozny, strike rebels in mountains

Many civilians trapped

federal forces employ deadly fuel air bombs

December 28, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MOSCOW -- Russian forces made halting progress in another day of furious street fighting in Grozny, Chechnya's capital. But they also stepped up attacks on guerrilla strongholds in Chechnya's mountainous southern region, where many of the rebel fighters have fled.

The federal assault on Grozny has been taking place in piecemeal fashion, as Russian troops probe the city's outer neighborhoods, dodging land mines and trading artillery fire with guerrillas holed up in trenches and basements.

Tens of thousands of civilians remain trapped in the city, without heat or electricity and in fear for their lives, after federal authorities said their safe exit could no longer be guaranteed as the long-awaited assault on Grozny got under way last weekend.

No large tank units have as yet gone into the city, Russian military spokesmen said yesterday. But reporters in Grozny said street battles are taking place, with clashes between federal forces and a special Chechen squad, known as the Wolves, reported in a southwestern neighborhood of the city.

The Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, vowed yesterday that rebel fighters would defend the bombed out ruins of Grozny to the last man.

Bislan Guntemirov, a former mayor of Grozny who has joined the federal forces, said yesterday that his Chechen militiamen had taken control of the northwestern district of Staropromyslovskya and would move on to the city center.

But a Russian news agency said sources close to Guntemirov, a convicted embezzler released from federal prison in the early days of the war, were less optimistic after clashes with rebel fighters. Such furious resistance came as surprise to the volunteers, the Interfax news agency quoted the Chechen militiamen as saying.

A report on NTV, a privately owned Russian television network, said the battle would soon move to Garibaldi Street, where the Chechen rebels have set up a fortified line of defense, cordoning off the city center.

The Russian military said yesterday that only four federal soldiers, three Russians and one Chechen, had been killed inside Grozny, while Chechen rebel leaders said hundreds of Russian soldiers had been killed. Neither account could be verified, given the sketchy reporting available from the war zone.

Seeking to block escape routes for guerrillas putting up fierce resistance in Grozny, the Russian military targeted southern Chechnya yesterday with fuel air bombs, highly destructive explosives capable of killing people sheltered in basements, Russian news reports said.

The military said the bombs were used only against rebel bases in southern mountainous districts, but the Russian military has a record of bombing Chechen villages, exacting a high civilian toll and later claiming that only rebel targets were hit.

Fuel air bombs release a cloud of flammable gas, which explodes and creates a lethal shock wave. The blast can kill people in trenches, buildings or hidden deep in caves or bomb shelters.

Charles Blandy, a military expert at the Conflict Studies Research Center at Sandhurst Military Academy in Britain, said the chances of surviving an attack by fuel air explosives were slim.

"There has been no care whatsoever throughout this campaign about how much damage is inflicted on the civilian population and infrastructure," he said. "They [the Russian military] just don't care. They've got one object, and that's to get Chechnya back within the Russian Federation -- and they don't care how they do it."

In Moscow, Prime Minister Vladimir S. Putin said after meeting yesterday with President Boris N. Yeltsin that the attack on Grozny was going as planned, despite no breakthroughs. Russian officials have backed down from earlier optimistic forecasts of a quick victory.

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