- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2000

MOSCOW Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev yesterday said his troops will change their tactics in Chechnya to deal with rebels whose hit-and-run raids and ambushes continue to inflict losses on Russian forces across the republic.

Mr. Sergeyev did not give any details of how the Russians would change their handling of the separatists. However, Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky said part of the plan included clearing forests to deprive Chechen rebels of hiding places.

His comments drew scorn from rebel spokesman Movladi Udugov, who said Russia had no answer to the Chechens' fast-paced form of warfare.

"We have been fighting them for 400 years, and they are still using the same tactic: concentrating large forces in single places," he said in a telephone interview. "Our strategy is now to strike them throughout Chechen territory."

Russian authorities this weekend admitted that at least 50 elite troops were killed in two carefully staged ambushes, one in the capital, Grozny, which fell to Russian forces several weeks ago. Local Russian officials now say the losses from one of the ambushes could be higher, with as many as 60 to 80 dead from a single Russian paratroop company.

The Chechen successes appear to have taken the Russian military by surprise. Last week, the Defense Ministry announced the capture of the last major Chechen mountain stronghold of Shatoi, saying the fall of the town heralded the end of large-scale Russian military operations in Chechnya.

Mr. Udugov said rebels temporarily seized the lowland villages of Samashki and Stary Atagi Monday night and re-entered the capital, Grozny, from the southwest.

"They are concentrating their forces in the mountains while we are fanning out," he said. "In a few weeks they will find they have to fight for the entire republic all over again."

In the last few days, thousands of rebels who escaped the Russian siege on their southern mountain strongholds have sought to make good on the "partisan war" threat of their leaders.

On Saturday, rebels struck in north Chechnya, blasting a key gas pipeline with several explosions. Northern Chechnya and the neighboring republic of Dagestan were forced as a result to rely on reserve supplies. Rebels have threatened to target Russian gas and oil pipelines running throughout the breakaway republic, including the main line that carries oil from the Caspian Sea basin to the Black Sea.

And the rebels have launched raids in parts of the breakaway region where Russia authorities have long claimed to hold sway while at the same time keeping up a fierce fight in the Argun and Vedeno gorges in the southern mountains.

Though acknowledging their forces are suffering a rising death toll, Russian generals insist rebel losses are much higher.

"In the [Argun] gorge alone … we picked up 55 [bodies of fighters]. On the routes to the gorge and behind the gorge about 150. You can go down and count them," said Gen. Vladimir Bulgakov.

Gen. Gennady Troshev told Russian television his troops had killed more than 1,000 rebels in battles near the steep Argun gorge. His claim could not be independently verified. Gen. Sergeyev said his forces had encircled a 1,000-strong guerrilla group led by Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelayev near the village of Komsomolskoye, 15 miles south of Grozny.

Independent military analysts in Moscow questioned the Russian claims, noting that the rebels' dispersal reduced the Russian advantage in air power and artillery.

Respected analyst Pavel Felgengauer maintains that the war is now coming down to a merciless slog with little logic.

"The Russian propaganda machine has been proclaiming liberation for five months now. But it would seem that the Chechens themselves believe that they are under foreign occupation, and they are behaving accordingly," he said.

"The prevailing mood binding together the troops in Chechnya, from generals to privates, is hatred for the Chechens. The overall approach among the military is this if we are to win, we have to destroy the Chechens down to the last man," Mr. Felgengauer added.

Ironically, what has transpired since the fall of Grozny and the capture by the Russians of key positions in the Argun and Vedeno gorges was foretold by the Russian military itself.

Defense Ministry spokesmen predicted the rebels would try to fan out into the Chechen flatlands, blend in with the local population and launch a guerrilla war. And they said some rebel units would likely stay in the mountains to engage troops while the rest would split into small groups and try to break out of their encirclement in the southern mountains.

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