- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 1999

GROZNY, Russia Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers stormed into the Chechen capital of Grozny yesterday but were beaten back in street fighting by Chechen defenders firing rocket-propelled grenades.

The bodies of several Russian soldiers were seen around the burning wrecks of their vehicles in Minutka Square after the attack was stopped late yesterday.

It was the first time Russian armored forces had tried to move into Grozny since federal troops encircled the city last month an indication that Russian commanders were stepping up their efforts to capture it.

Seven Russian tanks and eight armored personnel carriers managed to get into the square, about two miles from the center of Grozny. The Russian troops apparently became confused and were later trapped, making it easier for the rebel fighters to attack the convoy.

The Russian Defense Ministry had no immediate information on the attack. Rebel casualties apparently were few.

The raid came as Russian forces continued to shell the city. Plumes of black smoke rose over the city’s devastated center as salvos of Russian shells screamed overhead, exploding in flashes of red and orange.

Earlier in the day, a top military official in Moscow predicted that Grozny would be taken in “a matter of days,” and that the Russians would completely defeat the militants by February.

But the rebels expressed confidence yesterday. Grozny Mayor Lechi Dudayev said the fighters “are afraid of nothing but Allah.”

Russian forces now control 60 percent of Chechnya, and it will take two to three months to defeat the estimated 12,000 to 15,000 rebels throughout the breakaway republic, said Gen. Valery Manilov, first deputy chief of the Russian General Staff.

The Russian military’s march across Chechnya so far has faced limited resistance from the outgunned militants, who have repeatedly retreated rather than wage full-scale ground battles.

But Lechi Islamov, a senior Chechen commander in Grozny, said rebel forces had repulsed six Russian ground attacks in the north and southeast of the city during the past 24 hours.

Several thousand militants are entrenched in the battered capital, where they have been preparing for weeks for a Russian assault.

The rebels have a wealth of experience in guarding against Russian attacks on Grozny. Chechen fighters fiercely defended the capital at the beginning of the 1994-96 war against Russia and recaptured the city near the end of the conflict.

However, if Russia’s superior firepower overwhelms the rebels, as many predict, the militants will retreat to southern Chechnya and wage guerrilla warfare from the mountains.

Mr. Islamov said rebel groups outside the city are finding it difficult to send reinforcements and supplies through the Russian lines encircling the city.

From 10,000 to 40,000 hungry civilians are believed to be trapped in the city, many too old and infirm to make the dangerous journey through Russian shelling out of the capital.

The Emergency Situations Ministry said almost 3,000 civilians had left the city since Saturday, the Itar-Tass news agency reported. But reporters say they have seen only small numbers of people straggling out.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the Russians would first complete the “anti-terrorist operation” and would then look to solve “political problems by political means,” according to his spokesman, Mikhail Kuzhukhov.

Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said he was ready to hold talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov to discuss evacuating civilians from Grozny.

“I am ready for contacts with Maskhadov, or the devil himself, to provide for the safety of the peaceful population,” Mr. Shoigu said.

According to Mr. Islamov, more than 100 Russian soldiers have been killed in the past two days of fighting and 86 civilians have died in Grozny from Russian shelling during the past 10 days.

The figures could not be independently confirmed, and both sides routinely exaggerate casualty claims.

Amid strong international criticism of Russia’s military campaign, Knut Vollebaek, chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, offered to mediate a cease-fire.

“We need to find a political solution,” Mr. Vollebaek said yesterday in Ingushetia, the Russian region bordering Chechnya that has taken in the vast majority of the refugees.

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