- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2000

MOSCOW The Russian flag flew above the smoldering ruins of Chechnya's capital, Grozny, yesterday as thousands of rebel fighters, their top commanders reportedly killed or wounded, fled to the mountains to regroup.

Kremlin officials proclaimed victory after a five-month siege, while Chechen leaders declared they would be back to fight again in a war that has resulted in thousands of battlefield casualties and sent hundreds of thousands of terrified refugees into exile.

Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev insisted that federal forces, armed with tanks and artillery, had successfully blocked rebels trying to flee Grozny.

"Nobody will ever allow the rebels to leave the city other than under a white flag and after laying down their weapons," he said.

Some rebels remained in the battered Chechen capital to keep up the fierce resistance they have mounted against months of air and artillery attacks and a five-week Russian push to take the city center.

There was no sign that any of the estimated 15,000 to 40,000 civilians trapped in Grozny had left with the rebels.

In the last Chechen war, the rebels lost control of Grozny in 1995, but kept fighting until they retook the city in 1996 and subsequently drove Russian troops out of their republic.

Moscow greeted the city's fall yesterday as the beginning of the end of organized Chechen resistance to Russian rule.

But doubts lingered over the immediate events that led to the collapse of the Chechens' tenacious defense of the city, prompting military analysts to dismiss as premature talk of a speedy conclusion to the war.

The rebels apparently suffered a major setback when a large group got caught in a minefield on the outskirts of Grozny. Several prominent Chechen commanders were killed or badly wounded, witnesses said.

Russian artillery then opened fire on the field, killing and wounding scores more fighters, they said, recounting a battle that took place Monday.

Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev reportedly had his leg torn off when his car was blown up by a mine as he escaped Grozny. He was spirited away, rebels said, and his whereabouts were unknown.

Among the Chechen commanders reportedly killed were Aslanbek Ismailov, who had headed Grozny's defenses, Khunkar-Pasha Israpilov, and Grozny Mayor Lecha Dudayev.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, in Moscow to co-chair a round of Middle East peace talks, appeared doubtful that fighting would shortly be over.

Sitting by her somber-looking Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, at a press conference, she underlined again the West's impatience with the growing civilian casualties of the war.

In a voice crackling with irritation, she said: "The main point here is that this should now end and both sides have to sit down and negotiate."

Russian officials from the Defense Ministry and the Kremlin continued to repeat claims that hundreds of exhausted rebels had surrendered.

A top spokesman for acting Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed 140 Chechens had laid down their arms to the much larger Russian forces on Sunday alone.

He said more were to be expected. The thrust of the Russian claims that the separatist rebel movement is now demoralized and crushed failed to tally with the Chechen version of what happened in the hours before Grozny fell.

Chechen leaders dispute the surrender reports, insisting that rebel defense of the city ended on their orders.

They say they beat a tactical retreat and withdrew more than 2,000 fighters under cover of dark and sniper fire, a maneuver they pulled off during the 1994-96 Chechen war.

A spokesman for Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov said the rebels would now take their fight to the mountains south and southwest of Grozny.

And from there, he vowed, they would repeat the kind of wide-ranging guerrilla war of attrition that in 1996 led to a four-year truce in fighting between Russians and Chechens.

French journalist Anne Nivat reported that some 2,200 Chechen fighters arrived late Sunday night in Alkhan-Kala, a town six miles from the suburbs of Grozny.

Several dozen of the Chechen wounded who made it to Alkhan-Kala lay on the snow around the village's small clinic because there was no room for them inside, residents told the Associated Press.

"Wounded fighters lie almost in piles inside the hospital, and we had to put dozens more on the snow outside," said Baiant Munayeva, who helped care for the injured.

"There is just one doctor, and no medicines, no syringes, no nothing," said Mr. Munayeva, visibly shaken and pale. "Dozens have had their legs torn away, and they lie there covered with blood."

More than 3,000 rebels are believed to be holed up in the mountains south of Grozny, and with the 2,000 or so from the capital, the separatists could field about the same size force they used in the last Chechen war, analysts said.

Mr. Basayev, the rebel commander who reportedly had his leg blown off, was wounded several times in the last Chechen war and has seen more than 20 of his relatives killed in warfare with the Russians.

He is considered the most ruthless as well as imaginative of the rebels' field commanders.

In late 1995 when the rebel cause was at a low and the separatists were forced to evacuate Grozny and retreat across the plains to the mountains in the south of Chechnya, Mr. Basayev led 100 of his fighters, or boyeviks, on a daring raid into Russian territory.

Near Stavropol he seized a hospital and held 1,500 hostages. The Russian authorities were forced to negotiate and eventually let Mr. Basayev and his men go free.

It marked a turning point in Russian resolve to fight on and led to later negotiations that ended, albeit for only four years, Russian attempts to subdue the breakaway republic.

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