Russian Troops Head Toward Grozny
GROZNY, Russia (AP) _ After weeks of air and artillery strikes, Russian troops pushed closer to the Chechen capital Friday and a Russian general said a second stage of the campaign against the rebels was about to begin.
A column of about 100 Russian tanks and armored vehicles moved deeper into Chechnya from the west, coming under fire from rebels. Six Russian helicopter gunships pounded the rebel positions.
``The operation that started as anti-terrorist has grown into a military one, and the tactics and weapons have become adequate to that,″ Interior Ministry troops commander Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov said.
By Friday evening, Russian troops had reached Tolstoy-Yurt, a village just 10 miles north of the center of Grozny, the capital. Tolstoy-Yurt itself was still controlled by the militants.
Col. Gen. Viktor Kazantsev, the top federal commander in Chechnya, said Friday that his troops had finished creating a security zone in the north to seal off the militants and will start a second phase Saturday to wipe out rebels throughout Chechnya.
Arbi Barayev, a Chechen commander, said four Russian vehicles were destroyed and that just two of his men have been killed in combat so far.
The Russian command said its three-week campaign was aimed at encircling militants who twice invaded the neighboring Dagestan in August and September.
The Russians have swiftly overrun Chechnya’s northern plains, but balked at proceeding into the hilly terrain below the Terek River, fearing losses from hit-and-run raids by the militants. The move toward Grozny on Friday was the first time Russians advanced deep inside western Chechnya south of the river. There was no indication they would try to enter the Chechen capital.
Ovchinnikov, the interior troops commander, said Russian forces won’t use excessive force and will try to win the sympathy of the impoverished population by donating humanitarian aid and restoring infrastructure.
``There is no need to conquer all of Chechnya,″ he said. ``I believe that healthy forces will appear which will take control of the situation and find a peaceful solution.″
However, the campaign has also fanned anger toward Russia among many Chechens, including people who are not associated with the Islamic militants fighting the Russians.
An estimated 170,000 refugees have fled the conflict.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Friday that Chechnya’s population has shrunk from 1.2 million before the 1994-96 war to just 160,000 now, the Interfax news agency reported. The ministry did not specify how it arrived at the estimate, and the huge drop could not be confirmed.
The Chechen headquarters said its forces shot down a Su-25 attack plane Thursday, the third since Russia began bombing the region several weeks ago. Air force spokesman Nikolai Baranov immediately denied the claim.
However, Kazantsev said Friday that Russian forces had lost three aircraft, one of which was shot down by rebels and two of which crashed because of equipment failures.
Russia had previously admitted losing an Su-24 and an Su-25 over Chechnya in the first few days of October.
Kazantsev said the 47 Russian troops had been killed in Chechnya and 33 wounded since Sept. 25. They also lost one tank, five armored personnel carriers and two other combat vehicles to enemy fire. At least 1,500 rebels have been killed, Kazantsev claimed.
Unlike the last war, the current campaign has widespread public support among most Russians. Four September apartment bomb blasts that killed 300 people have been blamed on the militants, and many say they should be destroyed at all costs.