Occasional Tank and Gunfire Rattle Rebel-Held Grozny
GROZNY, Russia (AP) _ Occasional tank and gunfire rattled the fog-bound Chechen capital today after President Boris Yeltsin suspended air raids, a slight respite from days of ferocious fighting.
Russian fighter jets and helicopters, however, again buzzed rebellious Chechnya. Intense fighting was heard near villages west of Grozny on the sixth day of Yeltsin’s bungled offensive to quash the Chechen secessionist movement.
A top Russian official claimed Grozny could be under Kremlin control by nightfall but officials have previously made bold predictions and underestimated the rebel’s determination to fight for independence for the mostly Muslim, oil-rich republic 1,000 miles south of Moscow.
The political pressure on Yeltsin has increased as Russian troops bogged down in the third week of the offensive.
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov called for early presidential elections to dump Yeltsin, lawmakers have compiled enough signatures to call an emergency legislative session, and random air raids in which 100 civilian villagers were killed have prompted intense criticism across Europe.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians and fighters have been killed or wounded in the fighting since Dec. 11, mostly in and around Grozny. The Red Cross estimates 350,000 people _ nearly one-third of the Chechen population _ have been left homeless.
After a week of constant bombing, Grozny was relatively quiet overnight with the shelling mostly stopped, said Asahmet Nalgiev, a press officer in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.
A lone Russian fighter jet made just one bombing sortie shortly after midnight and another in the morning, far less than before, said Timur Tsuroyev, a Chechen fighter at rebel headquarters in southern Grozny.
Only minor street skirmishes and some tank fire were heard today. Fog hung over Chechnya, limiting visibility in the hills and populated areas and making accurate bombing difficult.
Intense tank and mortar fire was heard near Chechnya’s western border with Ingushetia, where bombing raids in recent days killed at least four civilian villagers. Chechen fighters have fanned out to the hills to engage Russian forces trying to seal the breakaway republic.
In Grozny, Chechen fighter Hussein Mudayev, dressed in a camouflage uniform and carrying a Russian-made sniper rifle, said the rebels’ success so far proves ``Russia is not so strong after all.″
Yeltsin a week ago promised to stop bombing, and did so again Wednesday. But even as he made the first announcement, warplanes continued their raids, destroying much of central Grozny, including an orphanage.
In Chechnya and surrounding areas, Yeltsin’s latest promise was greeted with skepticism. ``It’s a lie, a deception. We remember what happened last time,″ said Musa Gadaborshev, 42, a businessman in Nazran who has taken 11 refugees into his home.
Despite the announcement of a halt in air raids, Russia continued to bring in troops, preparing for a possible new assault on Grozny and the palace of Chechen President Dzhokar Dudayev.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Yegorov, at a news conference at Russian military headquarters in nearby Mozdok, said Russian troops could be in control of Grozny by later today.
Sergei Kovalyov, a reformist Russian lawmaker, emerged Wednesday from the Chechen presidential palace after three weeks in the bunkers and said Yeltsin’s war could mean the end of the Russian state, made up of a series of federations and ethnic states controlled centrally by Moscow.
Kovalyov was carrying an appeal signed by 81 Russian prisoners of war saying they had been fooled into fighting and demanding that Yeltsin end the war.
Russia’s Independent TV showed footage Wednesday of what appeared to be cluster bombs. Doctors treating the wounded said bombs packed with nails are being used.