Russians Battle to Encircle Grozny
GROZNY, Russia (AP) _ Backed by rockets and heavy artillery, Russian tanks and ground troops fought Sunday to close in on outnumbered and outgunned Chechen rebels, some of them using World War II-era equipment.
The capital of the secessionist republic was rocked by explosions as shells slammed into tall buildings, and pillars of black smoke soared hundreds of yards into the sky. A huge orange blast shook the city around noon, sending up a giant, black mushroom cloud.
Rebels still held the presidential palace in the center of the ruined city, but their positions south of the palace were coming under strong attack.
Russian forces driving from the north of Grozny appeared to be trying to completely encircle the center by linking up in the south of the city. Heavy machine-gun and rifle fire resounded in the southern districts throughout the day.
``The Russians are just firing at everything,″ said Hasan, a Chechen fighter.
Rebel fighters said Russian troops had forced their way overnight into the wrecked palace, the symbol of Chechnya’s independence drive, but were driven out in ferocious fighting early Sunday.
The Russians now hold several buildings on the same square as the presidential palace. But it was difficult to determine exactly how the fighting was going with no information coming from the Russian or Chechen military commands in Grozny.
``The Russians are storming the center of the city in wave after wave and they are being slaughtered,″ said Sayed Bemin, a Chechen fighter.
On the roads outside Grozny, Russian munitions convoys loaded with thousands of artillery shells approached the city on Sunday.
The Chechens said they were running low on ammunitions and weapons. Some fighters asked journalists for weapons and ammunition.
One rebel fighter carried a World War II submachine gun, and some Chechens were using hunting rifles. One Chechen fighter wore an old Nazi helmet.
The shelling on Sunday was a continuation of the Russians’ strategy of trying to break Chechen resistance and clear the way for the infantry. There were several unexplained lulls in the artillery attacks in the afternoon.
There appeared to be fewer rebels in Grozny, but many were sheltering in bunkers. Most fighters said they were determined to hold on, although many appeared tired and somber after days of fighting.
``We’ll kill all of these vipers,″ said the fighter Hasan.
Moscow sent tens of thousands of troops into Chechnya on Dec. 11 to reassert its control over the mostly Muslim republic of 1.2 million in the Caucasus Mountains. The ground assault on Grozny began New Year’s Eve.
The fall of Grozny would allow Russia to install a provisional government in Chechnya, but would not give it firm control over the southern republic. Chechen militants have vowed to continue the fighting from the mountains, where many are now based.
Thousands of people are believed to have been killed in the war, although casualty estimates vary wildly.
A fourth journalist was killed in Grozny. Russian army doctors said Valentin Yanus, 56, a television cameraman for Channel 5 in St. Petersburg, was killed in the center of Grozny on Saturday.
Sunday’s intense bombardment killed a number of civilians.
Russian warplanes bombed villages outside Grozny. In an attack on a settlement about six miles away, a woman was killed. Ten cows also were left dead.
In other developments, Russian news reports cited Chechen elders as saying the oldest son of Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev had been killed defending Grozny. Ovlur Dudayev was buried Friday, the Interfax and ITAR-Tass news agencies reported. The reports could not be independently confirmed.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said the first planeload of humanitarian aid to refugees in the region arrived Sunday in North Ossetia, near Chechnya. International aid agencies have met delays in delivering relief to the estimated 300,000 refugees.