Bloodied Chechens retreat from Grozny

Russians tighten grip on the capital, declare that victory is at hand

February 02, 2000|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Retreating Chechen rebels stumbled into a minefield yesterday, apparently turning their strategic withdrawal into a bloody debacle as Russian troops tightened their hold on the Chechen capital of Grozny.

Last night, Russian officials said victory was nearly at hand in the fierce, five-week battle for the city. Taking Grozny would offer Moscow a great psychological triumph, even if there were no signs the war was close to ending.

"There has been a breakthrough in Grozny," Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev told reporters at operation headquarters in Mozdok, near the Chechen border. "Nobody will ever allow the rebels to leave the city other than under a white flag and after laying down their weapons."

While asserting they were close to seizing control, Sergeyev and other Russian leaders denied that all the Chechen fighters had left the capital,an odd departure from usual comments on the conflict. Until now, the military would announce repeatedly that it had driven all rebels from a town, only to have fierce resistance flare up again within days.

"If they had left Grozny, then we would have informed you," Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the official Russian spokesman on the conflict, said at an afternoon news conference.

A Chechen spokesman, Movladi Udugov, told Reuters by telephone that the rebel fighters had left the city.

"The withdrawal was carried out in an orderly fashion," Udugov said. "They have been completely withdrawn from the city."

Whether many of the estimated 3,000 rebel fighters who had been deployed in Grozny managed to retreat or were in fact trapped in the city, there was little doubt that they had suffered serious losses.

Shamil Basayev, the most-wanted man in Russia and a charismatic rebel leader, reportedly lost a leg when his car was blown up by a mine.

Lecha Dudayev, the mayor of Grozny and nephew of the general who led the first war for Chechen independence in 1994, reportedly was killed. So was Aslanbek Ismailov, who led the defense of Grozny, and another prominent commander, Khunkar-Pasha Israpilov.

Witnesses described a desperate scene in the village of Alkhan-Kala, to the west of Grozny. They said several dozen wounded Chechen fighters lay in the snow outside a small clinic already filled to capacity with injured rebels.

"Wounded fighters lie almost in piles inside the hospital and we had to put dozens more on the snow outside," Baiant Munayeva, who tried to help the wounded, told the Associated Press.

"There is just one doctor and no medicines, no syringes, no nothing," she said. "Dozens have had their legs torn away, and they lie there covered with blood."

In recent days, doctors caring for wounded Chechens have said they are working without electricity or anesthetic as they amputate limbs or attempt to close wounds.

Russia's NTV television channel broadcast film of Grozny last night, showing little but smoking rubble along with the skeletons of high-rise apartment buildings. There was no sign of life except for soldiers.

Between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians were believed to have been trapped in the city when the fighting began. There was no telling how many have survived, but the United States and other Western powers, along with human rights organizations, have denounced the deaths of civilians in the war.

One young Russian soldier told NTV that the troops had found some civilians, mostly elderly men and women. "We are surprised how they managed to stay alive," the soldier said.

During the earlier war in Chechnya, from 1994 to 1996, the Russians took Grozny in 1995, suffering heavy casualties. Chechen fighters seeking independence for the Caucasus republic retook the city in 1996.

Then, as now, the Chechen strategy was to inflict as many losses on the Russians as they could, retreating before their own losses became debilitating. The rebels who reportedly left the city yesterday were headed toward rebel forces in the mountains to the south, where they would be able to hide and carry out a guerrilla war against the Russians, as they did before.

Sergeyev, the defense minister, said yesterday that the Russian military had not forgotten that earlier war.

"I think that the rebel attempts to break out of Grozny will be unsuccessful," he said. "There will be no repeat of 1996."

Itar-Tass, the Russian news agency, appeared close to proclaiming victory. In a dispatch from Grozny yesterday, the news service reported that female mercenaries hired by the rebels were desperately trying to flee the city disguised as refugees.

Tass said Chechen commanders were charging the women $500 for fake Russian passports. There was no explanation of why rebel leaders, identified in Moscow as Islamic terrorists, would hire women to fight for them.

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