- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2000

MOSCOW The Kremlin brushed aside the apparent capture of a top general and bloody setbacks on the streets of Chechnya's capital Thursday, laying plans to rule the city that its troops have all but destroyed.

Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Koshman, the top Russian civilian in Chechnya, is drafting a blueprint to get Grozny up and running again after weeks of relentless aerial and artillery assault.

"As most of Grozny has been destroyed, we must be ready to start reconstructing municipal services in the town in no time after the capital is liberated," he said.

Russia's Itar-Tass news agency, which has been a cipher for the Kremlin, has even gone so far as to report that peace talks are being held in Moscow with major rebel field commanders.

Despite Kremlin promises and speculation that Grozny will fall in weeks, if not days, the battle appeared far from over Thursday.

Both sides reported losses on the fifth day of Russia's latest offensive.

The rebels said they had captured Russian Maj. Gen. Mikhail Malofeyev, the deputy leader of Russia's northern army group, which is attempting to storm the rebel capital. A Defense Ministry spokesman confirmed the general was missing.

Gen. Malofeyev's capture was also confirmed by top Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who said on rebel television that the general was still alive.

Mr. Basayev said the general had been taken to a secret location outside the besieged city, where he was being questioned by the rebels.

The Russian army said warplanes and helicopters had flown more than 200 raids possibly the highest number yet as its unrelenting bombardment of the capital city continued, and Moscow reported slow but steady tactical gains on the ground.

Chechen snipers pinned down Russian troops trying to advance in the shattered streets of the rebel republic's capital, even as tanks and helicopter gunships blasted the high-rise buildings where the sharpshooters were holed up.

Heavy air and artillery bombardment failed to slow the hail of bullets from the Chechen snipers' rifles, and Russian reconnaissance reported that the rebels had built a series of bunkers behind the apartment houses they occupied.

Some Russian soldiers complained that their equipment was outdated.

"It's useless to pound the rebels with shells dating back to 1952," growled Lt. Col. Dmitry Tsybin, who was watching a tank bombardment in northwest Grozny.

"These shells produce only noise and have very little destructive power. I haven't seen newer shells, say at least from the 1980s, used here," he told the Associated Press.

An estimated 2,000 rebels have built a series of three defensive lines with strongly fortified anti-tank and machine-gun positions.

All reports suggested that raging street battles remained fluid, with city blocks changing hands and buildings being taken, only to be lost again.

Rooftop snipers and rebel ambushes continued to take their toll.

Some of the fiercest fighting appeared to be focused near Minutka Square, a major route into the heart of Grozny, and around a strategic bridge over the Sunzha River.

Both Russian and Chechen commanders conceded privately that casualties are high.

Even so, it now seems certain that Grozny will fall, a victim of scorched-earth tactics.

But even in Russian hands, Grozny would face an uncertain and potentially perilous future.

Four years ago during the first Chechen war, the Russians captured Grozny, but under the pressure of hit-and-run assaults by defiant Chechen rebels, control was relinquished and Russian forces turned tail.

Recent rebel counterattacks in Gudermes, Argun and Shali illustrate how shaky the Russian presence is in cities they claim to control.

The rebels have the capability to recapture, albeit briefly, entire towns, as they did in November with Novogroznensky.

An estimated 10,000 to 25,000 civilians are believed to still be in Grozny. Most are trying to save themselves by hiding in dark, unheated basements, and food and medical supplies are reported to be very low.

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