Russia Close in on Seize Presidential Palace
GROZNY, Russia (AP) _ Russian tanks and soldiers closed in on the presidential palace today while Chechen rebels darted from house to house, trying to knock out the Russian armor.
Russia’s rocket and mortar barrage on central Grozny gave way to tank fire and intense machine-gun and small-arms attacks. The area around the presidential palace, the symbol of Chechnya’s independence drive and Russia’s main target, was a whirlwird of exploding shrapnel, bullets and shells.
The Russian government said troops it sent into the breakaway republic on Dec. 11 had advanced to within a few hundred yards of the palace on two sides by mid-afternoon and claimed they had the building ``completely blocked.″
Bands of Chechen fighters ran, trying to halt the armored advance with rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Some have been able to sneak around the Russians and attack from behind.
Facing overwhelming firepower, the Chechen mood was increasingly somber, with none of the dancing or shows of defiance of recent days. The Chechens say they are determined to fight for every inch of the city, but the area they held seemed to be shrinking.
Russian reinforcements continued to arrive today. A battalion of 30 tanks moved toward the city on one road.
The fighting could be heard in villages outside the besieged Chechen capital. It came three days after President Boris Yeltsin demanded to know why the city was being bombed despite his orders to halt.
Government statements in Moscow have differed sharply from reality in Chechnya, prompting U.S. leaders to ask whether Russia’s commander-in-chief was fully in control.
``If he tells people the bombing has stopped and the bombing is still continuing ... he’s not in charge,″ Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole said Sunday.
President Clinton and other world leaders have urged Moscow to settle the Chechnya uprising through negotiation.
Instead, Yeltsin has sent tens of thousands of troops into Chechnya. The mostly Muslim region of 1.2 million people in the Caucasus Mountains declared independence in 1991.
Thousands of people have been killed and wounded since the Russian offensive began. The Red Cross estimates there are 350,000 refugees.
Today, Russia’s Mayak radio said Chechens had proposed a three-hour halt in the fighting so both sides could collect their dead, but the Russians rejected the proposal.
The latest fighting is driving out even the stalwart remaining residents of Grozny, once home to 400,000 people. Rebels on Sunday pushed an elderly woman in a wheelbarrow from the city center. Another family packed their belongings into a baby carriage and headed south, with no idea where they’d go.
Russian troops were positioned in a rough arc in the city running from northwest to northeast of a key prize _ the presidential palace in central Freedom Square.
A regular procession of battered cars brought wounded Chechen fighters from the palace. The Chechens claim they still hold the multi-story building, but it has taken several direct hits and was gutted by fire on its top floors.
One fighter, 26-year-old Yusup Magomedov, claimed the fire had been put out and ``all our officials are still working there. (President Dzhokhar) Dudayev is in full control of the situation.″
Russian tank and paratroop units were trying to move in from the east near the central market and the west from the railway station in a bid to encircle the palace.
The heaviest attack Sunday came from long-range rockets, artillery and mortar fire. Small craters, burned-out rocket nose cones, contorted steel and a sea of smashed glass marked a Grad missile attack on Grozny’s main bus station.
Hunkered down by an apartment building on Leninsky Prospect, a 30-year-old mother of five, Zulaya Bersanova, and her Chechen unit took a break Sunday from heavy fighting around the railway station.
``The bombing has been heavy, but our morale is stronger than ever,″ she said as an artillery round hit an apartment building 100 yards away, sending up clouds of steel-gray smoke.
Moscow, meanwhile, postponed German-Russian military maneuvers designed to bring Russia closer to NATO.
Russia informed Germany on Friday that it would delay the summer exercises near St. Petersburg, said German Defense Ministry spokesman Hans-Dieter Wichter.
Moscow justified the postponement by citing unspecified ``military reasons,″ Wichter said. That could mean the Russian soldiers who might take part in the exercises are needed in Chechnya, Wichter said.